For California to succeed in the 21st century, the state will need a well-educated populace. The foundation for sound learning begins in the K-12 public school system which, sadly, for nearly 40 years, has been in a deep and continuous decline.
According to the Department of Education’s website, California’s public school enrollment for the academic year 2009–2010, the latest data available, is at an all-time high of 6.2 million students, a total that would rank it as the 17th largest state in the union. California educates one in every eight public school children in the United States. The pressure is unrelenting. During the last decade, California’s public school population soared by 1 million.
The ever-increasing student body puts greater demands on teachers, school administrators, taxpayers and other students as they compete among each other for teachers’ time and increasingly scarce resources. Adding to the challenge of educating such a huge student body, many of the children come to school unprepared to learn. More than one in five California children live in poverty, and nearly half of all K-12 students participate in the federal free and reduced-price meal programs offered to students from low-income families.
The state of public education has not always been this grim here. Four decades ago, experts considered California’s school system the nation’s best. What’s happened in the intervening years and what might be done to reverse the downward spiral will be examined in this CAPS Issues article.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, upwardly mobile young professionals moved to California in large numbers because of its high-paying jobs and advanced infrastructure that included intrastate highways and excellent public schools.
Then in 1978, Howard Jarvis, an anti-tax crusader, drafted and advocated for Proposition 13, which while it provided welcome tax relief to California homeowners and had the effect of discouraging some development, was also responsible for drastic reductions in state revenue available for public school funding. Designed as a response to skyrocketing property taxes, Prop 13 required a two-thirds vote to pass new state taxes. For the first 30 years after Prop 13 passed and ended funding to cities and local school districts, legislators sustained education services to the state’s growing population with various smoke and mirrors maneuvers, mostly expensive school construction bonds. But today, that’s over. With the bond market dried up, schools face teacher layoffs, increased class sizes, the loss of computer labs, potential mergers between districts and, for some, insolvency. According to former Superintendent of Public Education Jack O’Connell, 16 percent of California’s 1,000 districts may not have sufficient cash to operate within the next three years which could lead to a state takeover.
But much more went wrong than just Prop 13.
Ill-conceived federal immigration policies and poor Sacramento decision making set California into free fall and toward the bottom of the nation’s education barrel. Overpopulation was at the core of the failures. Included as part of this CAPS analysis of California’s precipitous decline in education is the adverse impact of four immigration bills:
- The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965
- The 1975 Indochina Migration and Refugee Act
- The Refugee Act of 1980
- The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act
Two other factors played a major role. “Whole Language Reform” swept across California in the late 1980s and resulted in an entire generation of students who could not read. Then, in 1996, there was the move to reduce class size.
Even billions of dollars poured into public education along the way haven’t been enough to overcome too much immigration and too many well-intended, but misconceived, policies.
First, we’ll examine the four immigration bills.
The 1965 Immigration Act
In 1962, California’s population was 17 million with 8 percent minority residents. But the Immigration Act opened California’s doors to huge waves of immigrants. California’s demographic change was immediate and profound.
Today, more than 50 percent of K-12 students are Hispanic; 10 percent Asian, 27 percent white and 7 percent black. The aggregate student population, mostly immigrants and their children, grows by tens of thousands each year.
This growth has led to severe school shortages, with one in three students attending an overcrowded school. Some campuses, in desperation, use portable classrooms or gymnasiums to house students. The state Department of Education estimates that 16 new classrooms must be built every day, seven days a week, for the next five years to accommodate the annual new student influx.
The impetus behind new school construction is rising enrollment which is driven by more immigration.
In fact, without immigration, California’s school enrollment would have declined in recent years.
Among California’s total 6.2 million K-12 enrollment, 1.5 million students are English Language Learners.
Although English learners speak more than 50 different languages, Spanish (1.2 million) is the most common. The cost of English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction adds enormously to the state’s education budget.
The 2001 national mandate, “No Child Left Behind (NCLB),” required that all public schools help ESL students become English proficient, since both students fluent in English and ESL students are required to meet state and national achievement standards. Unlike art, music, science and libraries, all of which add to a well-rounded education but have been widely eliminated, ESL classes cannot be cut.
The exact language from NCLB declares that educators must “… help ensure that children who are limited English proficient, including immigrant children and youth, attain English proficiency, develop high levels of academic attainment in English, and meet the same challenging State academic content and student academic achievement standards as all children are expected to meet.”
Since public schools risk losing federal funding if they should eliminate ESL instruction, there is almost no chance that California would do so.
Consequently, taxpayers must underwrite the cost of providing language instruction to non-English speakers. Using the most conservative figure to calculate the average annual per pupil cost, $5,000, California spends at least $10 billion to educate the 1.5 million students with limited English language skills. Some students may be legal immigrants, others birthright citizens born to illegal aliens and others illegal aliens themselves. But all 1.5 million are enrolled in California’s schools because of an overly generous federal immigration policy.
1975 Indochina Migration and Refugee Act and the Refugee Act of 1980
After Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975, the federal government created two refugee programs that resulted in hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asian immigrants arriving in California.
Although the State Department originally dispersed refugees throughout the country, eventually large numbers moved to California. Then, through family reunification, California took in second and third generations of refugees.
Suddenly, schools which had historically served predominantly English-speaking students with a relatively small population of Spanish speakers had to provide for Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians and Hmong, an Asian sub-group located in Laos’ mountainous regions.
To reach out to these many new ethnicities, California dedicated millions of dollars to cross-cultural and bilingual certification and training programs, the so called BCLAD (Bilingual, Cross-Cultural, Language and Academic Development) and CLAD (Cross- Cultural, Language and Academic Development) certificates designed to meet the special language needs of Asian non-English speakers. Many districts mandated BCLAD and CLAD training, thus forcing teachers to spend countless hours at special seminars and leaving their existing students with inadequate substitutes.
The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) (1986)
Approximately ten years after the Immigration Reform and Control Act passed, which gave amnesty to 3 million illegal aliens, huge numbers of foreigners crossed our borders illegally in the hopes of attaining U.S. citizenship. The increased immigration to California communities and subsequent rise in usage of State social and educational services established a pattern that remains today.
The first post-IRCA test scores presented a troubling, continuing and, so far, irreversible problem.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) – the nation’s second largest school district with nearly 700,000 students, 73 percent of whom are Hispanic – reading and math scores for 11th graders were then, and remain now, well below the national norms.
Despite a $20 billion budget that allows for numerous academic support programs, LAUSD has one of the nation’s highest dropout rates, averaging 25 percent in recent years. Instead of going on to become part of California’s cuttingedge workforce, LAUSD’s students are often doomed to minimum wage jobs, at best, or, at worst, a lifetime of bad choices. Calculating the dire long-term consequences of California’s largest school district graduating semi-literate teenagers is immeasurable.
Prospects for Los Angeles’ future and those in other poor districts are not encouraging. To cope with budgetary limitations, many districts have gone to a shorter, 175-day school calendar, ten days fewer than the previous minimum. In Southern California, those districts include LAUSD, San Diego, Long Beach, Montebello, Fontana, Capistrano, Anaheim, Corona-Norco, Riverside, Poway and Saddleback Valley. In the Central Valley, Modesto and several smaller districts in Stanislaus County also intend to trim their school year. Northern California districts in San Jose, Fremont, San Francisco and Elk Grove will also cut back days.
Former State Superintendant of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell fears that a 170-day school year and 40 students per class with no ceiling may soon replace the already shortened 175-day school year.
If students can’t read, then they can’t learn. The most devastating blow to learning was the Whole Language movement that replaced the old skills-based approach (phonics and memorization) with a literacy philosophy that focused on the use and recognition of words in everyday contexts — in other words, books that are not textbooks.
Less than a decade after California introduced Whole Language, its fourth-grade reading scores plummeted to near the bottom nationally, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Only children in Louisiana and Guam scored worse.
High immigration played a central role in California’s embrace of Whole Language. Then Superintendent of Schools Delaine Easton established a Reading Task Force to determine whether California would adopt the new literacy focus or keep the traditional phonics method. Several task force members complained that the then-existing emphasis on basic skills left minority Latinos, Asians and blacks behind. Because most reading teachers required the mastery of one reading skill before a child could be taught the next, students who did not catch on quickly had to keep revisiting the fundamentals.
Repetitive drills were considered by advocates as meaningless to minorities.
At California’s 72 teacher colleges, meanwhile, blind devotion to Whole Language learning took hold. Teachers trained at the Cal State system learned the “child-centered” concept. An estimated 20,000 teachers took Whole Language in-service classes which resulted in more time away from their classrooms which, in turn, deprived their more capable students. By 1995, 10,000 brand new teachers in California’s grade schools used the ineffective Whole Language method and therefore countless thousands of primary school children never learned to read.
Class Size Reduction
Introduced in 1996 to the overwhelming delight of teachers, parents and policymakers, Class Size Reduction (CSR), the effort to reduce the teacher-student ratio, has mostly failed. Beginning with grades 1-3 and by limiting the number of students to 20, California allocated $1.5 billion per year to its new project. But 15 years later, there’s little evidence of academic benefits. Worse, CSR meant that as the teacher-pupil ratio dropped, more teachers and more new schools would be needed. The newly hired teachers were not only inexperienced but some only held temporary credentials.
In retrospect, CSR looks more like a political ploy than a worthy strategy. Then-Governor Pete Wilson had been under attack by the powerful California Teachers Association because of overcrowded classes. Although it may be too little, too late, today California has moved away from CSR and claims to focus instead on teacher quality as the single most important in-school determinant of student learning.
In other words, skilled teachers heading larger classes is preferable to smaller classes taught by ineffective instructors.
Author’s Recommendations and Alternatives
Any government entity in such an advanced stage of decay as California’s education system requires a small scale miracle to save it. Nevertheless there are steps that could put California back on the right track.
1. Enforce Immigration Policy
The most obvious solution is also the least likely to occur. The federal government should immediately implement a sound immigration policy that includes severely limiting legal immigration, shoring up the Mexico-United States border to eliminate illegal immigration and seeking out and deporting visa overstayers and others illegally here. Simply stated, California cannot educate the world. Dozens of languages, each of which requires special administrative attention, are spoken throughout California’s school districts. In some ethnic enclaves, basic instruction is often supplemented in students’ native languages.
At Broadway Elementary in Los Angeles, where both English and Spanish are commonly heard in the school yard, a Mandarin program launched this year serves 44 kindergarten students. Although being bi-or tri-lingual may appeal to globalists, any program other than one conducted in English and directly related to a core curriculum is a costly distraction.
An important note: even though the federal government dictates immigration policy, Governor Jerry Brown could, if he chose to, wield significant influence. If Brown were to make a public policy statement that California, with its multi-billion dollar budget deficit, cannot continue to provide K-12 schooling for a hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants, he would draw national attention.
The same could be said about the California Teachers Association which quietly goes along with the burdens that mass immigration has imposed upon its members.
2. Slash Costly Administrative Overhead
Begin by diminishing the dysfunctional California Department of Education. In no way can a centralized California bureaucracy provide for the educational needs of more than 1,000 individual districts Governor Brown has started this process through a continuation of Governor Schwarzenegger’s furlough days and his extensive school layoffs. But a 2010 Pepperdine University study titled “An Analysis of K-12 Education Expenditures in California: FY 2003-4 to FY 2008-09” found that total K-12 expenditures rose 22 percent between 2003-04 and 2008-09, from $45.6 to $55.6 billion.
During that period, classroom spending (defined as salaries and benefits for teachers and classroom aides, books, materials and supplies) declined from 59 percent to 57.8 percent, according to the study. Many Sacramento and local district-based administrative jobs, most in language-related positions, represent a costly duplication of effort and should be weeded out.
3. Challenge Plyler versus Doe
Challenge the 1982 Supreme Court Plyler versus Doe decision which by a 5-4 vote struck down a Texas statute that denied funding for education to illegal immigrant children. The challenge could take the form of a referendum similar to the 1994 Proposition 187 or a Congressional amendment such as Representative Elton Gallegly’s 1996 proposed legislation that would have allowed states “to deny public education benefits to certain aliens not lawfully present in the United States” or to charge these students tuition for public school enrollment.
Proposition 187 and Gallegly’s proposal died politically correct deaths. However, the Plyler versus Doe ruling was handed down nearly 30 years ago while Prop 187 and Gallegly’s efforts took place about 15 years ago.
Immigration was then, by comparison to today, a non-starter. In 1980, immigrants represented merely 6 percent of the U.S. population, just above the historic low of 4.7 percent set in 1970. According to 2009 data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, in 2009 the foreign-born population had grown to 38.5 million or 12.5 percent of the total. Furthermore, California wasn’t choking on an enormous deficit.
Significantly, then-Chief Justice Berger sided with Texas. In his dissenting vote, Berger wrote: “The Equal Protection Clause does not mandate identical treatment of different categories of persons … Without laboring what will seem obvious to many, it simply is not ‘irrational’ for a state to conclude that it does not have the same responsibility to provide benefits to persons whose very presence in the state and this country is illegal as it does to provide for persons lawfully present. By definition, illegal aliens have no right whatever to be here, and the state may reasonably, and constitutionally, elect not to provide them with governmental services at the expense of those who are lawfully in the state …”
California’s cost of educating illegal aliens and other immigrants has soared since Plyler versus Doe. Public education is the largest expense that state and local governments incur. California has been hit harder than any other state. Census projections indicate that immigration (immigrants and their citizen children) will account for 96 percent of the increase in the United States’ school-age population for the next 50 years. Illegal aliens, nationwide and in California, will account for about half of the increase.
4. Introduce Parental Choice
This common sense reform allows parents to choose which schools, including charter schools, would be most beneficial to their children.
For example, two years ago, significant numbers of Florida’s low-income and minority fourth graders outscored all California fourth graders in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card. Yet both states share similar student demographic profiles.
After a decade of comprehensive reform, Florida’s fourth graders now rank among the country’s highest performers while the reading performance of California fourth graders remains stuck near the bottom. By a 13-point advantage, Florida’s Hispanic fourth graders are the equivalent of nearly one-and-a-half grade levels ahead of all California fourth graders in reading.
How did Florida do it? One of the variables is parental choice, an option not widely available in California.
Even California students who persevere to finish high school and earn a diploma may hold a worthless piece of paper in their hands. The quality of education in California is held in such low regard that many employers dismiss a diploma as meaningless.
Federal and state legislators must act immediately in a nonpartisan manner to reduce immigration and thus lessen the burden on California taxpayers to educate every student who moves into the state. Former Governor Schwarzenegger summed up California’s sorry fiscal state in a June 2009 speech:
“Our wallet is empty, our bank is closed and our credit is dried up.”
Joe Guzzardi, a former English instructor, is a senior writing fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS), and his columns are frequently syndicated in various U.S. newspapers and websites. Contact him at [email protected].