By Antonio Villaraigosa
Los Angeles Daily News
With the passage of California’s Local Control Funding Formula and the new federal education law, Every Student Succeeds Act, responsibility for protecting disadvantaged children in the classroom falls squarely on states and districts. The question is: Is California ready for the responsibility?
Will California lead the nation in educational excellence and opportunity or will we continue to trail behind states like Massachusetts that made a commitment decades ago to high expectations and meaningful accountability?
I believe in the power of education to make the American Dream possible for anyone willing to work hard. I not only believe it. I know it firsthand.
Education is often called the great equalizer — putting all kids on a level playing field and giving them an equal shot at a good life. But American education is still unequal and inadequate for too many young people. We are one of the few developed nations in the world that spends less to educate poor kids than to educate rich ones.
And when the system of education is unequal, the results will be unequal. Consider California’s results on the national NAEP test — often referred to as the “gold standard” of assessments.
Our Latino students have made some gains over the years, but California is still ranked near the bottom and the gaps remain large. For example, in eighth-grade math only 15 percent of our Latino kids are at grade compared to 53 percent of white students — a 38-point difference. In fourth-grade reading, the percentage of Hispanics at grade is 31 points lower than for white students. For black students, it’s 33 points lower.
Unless we change those numbers, education will perpetuate inequity instead of reducing it. Instead of driving economic mobility and providing a ladder to the middle class, it will lock access to the middle class and beyond.
The current presidential election has focused discussion on income inequality but it mostly glosses over the most important lever for addressing it, which is strengthening K-12 education. Education alone can’t eliminate poverty, but for millions of young people, it’s the only real path out of poverty.
On average, a person with a college degree will earn nearly one million dollars more over a lifetime than a person with only a high school degree. Add a million college graduates to our economy and that’s a trillion dollars more in wealth. More important, it’s a million families with the means to live a decent life.
The good news is that California has adopted high standards. The Common Core standards are in schools and classrooms across the state and kids are better off for it. It’s more rigorous and more aligned to what they will need to succeed — both in college and in life.
California has also been a leader in innovation — with nearly 1,200 charter schools across the state — more than any other state in the country. The best ones, like the Alliance and the “PUC” schools in Los Angeles, the Summit Schools in the Bay Area and many others, are proving that poverty isn’t destiny.
The bad news, however, is that California has backtracked from accountability, putting disadvantaged children at greater risk than ever before. For the last three years, we have stopped reporting accountability ratings in California during the transition to new standards and new tests. It’s not clear when we will start again.
And this undermines our efforts to improve schools. Without transparency around performance, states and districts can’t help low-performing schools get better. Without the data you can’t make the case for change.
Parents also need data to make informed decisions. Increasingly, we live in a choice-based education system, not a neighborhood-based system. They want their kids to go to college. They want more learning time in school and they want the very best teachers in front of their children. They know all children are not the same and they want to find the right educational fit for each child.
Education Trust West has developed a set of common-sense recommendations around improving public education and holding ourselves accountable. The only question is, do we have the will and courage to adopt effective policies that lift the teaching profession, strengthen our schools and put children’s needs ahead of politics? Parent voice matters. We have to keep up the pressure. We can’t accept mediocrity and ignore the facts. It’s time we define our own destiny and demand quality education for our children. That’s what our parents want and our kids need. Anything less is unacceptable.
Antonio Villaraigosa is chairman of EducationPost’s advisory network. He was formerly mayor of Los Angeles and speaker of the California Assembly.