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Guest Contributor
Xiaochin Yan

Xiaochin Yan is a Policy Fellow in Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco.[Yan index]

Same as the Old Boss

State's education head plunges headlong into mediocrity...

[Xiaochin Yan] 1/28/05

In his recent "state of education" speech, Jack O'Connell, California's Superintendent of Public Instruction, linked poor student performance to a lack of funding. Legislators skeptical of this claim should compare what other states are getting for their dollars.

In New York, where per pupil spending is the highest in the nation, half of its eighth-graders did not meet the standards in English and language arts or in math. On the other hand, Texas, another large state with similar demographics, spends less per pupil than California but has achieved higher scores.

In California, state and local spending on education has already grown by more than $11 billion since 1998 — with precious little to show for it. The four-year drop-out rate increased while the percentage of graduates eligible for UC and CSU decreased. While there were some gains in fourth- and eighth-grade math, reading and writing scores, as well as average SAT scores, all stagnated. Not much to brag about for a 20-percent increase in per-pupil spending. And far from “starving” the schools, as one might conclude from the superintendent’s speech, the governor has proposed a six-percent increase of $2.9 billion.

Instead of admitting the dismal failure of the public school system, the superintendent sought to brush aside current problems by launching even grander visions and programs that the system is hardly qualified to handle. Take, for example, his proposal to provide free universal pre-school for all four-year-olds at the estimated cost of $2 to 2.5 billion to taxpayers.

Most children enter the public school system ready to learn, but by the time they graduate, few are proficient in reading and math. Putting children into an already failing system at an even earlier age does not make any sense. There’s no evidence that normal children benefit from early schooling any more than they do from ordinary parenting at home.

While the superintendent is busy pushing the idea that more money equals higher achievement, there is a lot waiting to be done to improve the quality of education. For starters, parents can be given more choice over a child’s education. Despite federal law allowing students to escape poorly performing schools, few eligible students actually do so because their parents are not informed about their rights. According to some school districts, one problem is that the state education department releases the list of failing schools only days or weeks before school starts, leaving little time to inform parents.

Education is already the state’s single most expensive program and one of its most important investments. The solution is not to replace parents and the home with ever more government spending and school programs. We would do better to encourage parents to spend more time with their children and to demand increased student achievement from our schools.

The regimes of California's last two education superintendents, Bill Honig and Delaine Eastin, were famous for mediocrity and failure, along with demands for increased funding. While he has to this point avoided the scandals of his predecessors, Superintendent O'Connell turns out to be the same as the old bosses.

Give us more money, he says, and we promise to do better this time. Given the record of the state's education establishment, the superintendent’s true constituency, there is little reason for legislators to take this claim seriously. CRO




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