The year 2020 is going to be crucial for public schools in California. Schools have been in crisis from West Virginia to Oklahoma, Arizona, Chicago, Los Angeles and Oakland. On the national level, public schools are under attack. But public education is the bedrock of American democracy.
In the 1970s California schools ranked among the top states in funding and student achievement. Even with recent increases, 37 states now spend more in per pupil funding. Worse yet, a recent Rutgers University study gave California an “F” in funding when taking into consideration our wealthy economy and cost of living.
A recent study by Stanford University showed that California schools would need an additional $25.6 billion to adequately educate our students. This corresponds to a San Diego Unified study a several years ago that estimated that our district would need an additional $350 million for what the public and educators demand.
The Local Control Funding Formula, initiated by Gov. Jerry Brown, rightfully provides supplemental funds for low-income students, English-learners and foster youth, but the base grant provided for every school is inadequate. Furthermore, special education is woefully underfunded and this needs to be addressed immediately.
We begin the budget planning process every year with a shortfall, because the increase each year does not meet the cost to even maintain the status quo. But the uncalculated shortfall is much larger if you include the staff actually needed in our schools: sufficient teachers, counselors, nurses, special education supports, building maintenance, safety measures and adequate summer school and music/arts programs. This is not pie in the sky. It’s about the basics for good public schools.
Any budget solution has to provide a decent living for our teachers. Providing competitive salaries and good benefits has helped recruit and retain better teachers in our district. This long-term funding shortfall from the state pits local stakeholders against each other, fighting for the scarce resources. The local school board has no control over the funds received, but must make difficult decisions every year about what programs to cut. The real problem needs to be addressed at the state level.
In 2009 in the midst of the financial crisis, we developed a plan, Vision 2020, for the transformation of our schools. This long-term plan has improved student achievement. In high school our students are simultaneously being prepared for college and technical (vocational) careers and college. Students are offered a broad and challenging curriculum at every school. Overall, 24 percent more students are eligible for the UC and CSU systems than just a few years ago. But black students have shown a 59 percent increase and Latinos a 48 percent increase. The achievement gap is not closed, but it’s narrowing.
We are developing a new growth and development process to replace the outdated teacher evaluation system. We are national leaders in technology in the classroom. We are updating all of our school facilities after decades of neglect with locally approved bond funds.
As Vision 2020 has progressed, San Diego has been recognized as a positive outlier in student achievement by UCLA, as well as a Stanford study, co-written by Linda Darling-Hammond, chair of the State Board of Education. It found that San Diego Unified students, including those from historically disadvantaged groups, are reaching “extraordinary levels of academic achievement” in comparison with other districts across the state.
But a key element missing from Vision 2020 was funding. This problem has been with us for more than 40 years and requires grand solutions. We cannot afford to wait. We are no longer willing to make painful cuts that hurt our students. If the largest urban districts start cutting into the bone, it could require a bailout of billions of dollars from the state. We need to acknowledge that “the emperor has no clothes” and quit pretending that the current funding system is sustainable.
We know that money does not buy happiness, but poverty does create a lot of misery. In San Diego we have proven that our schools are worthy of investment. We know what works. But we cannot take our successful programs to scale without adequate staff and resources.
With Vision 2020 we have narrowed the achievement gap. We know we can close the achievement gap by 2030 with full funding. Incremental increases will not solve the problem. We need to let our own state legislators and governor know that we are willing to pay for it. Our nation reached the moon in a decade. So too in the next decade can California, as the world’s fifth largest economy, create a truly level playing field for our students and restore our schools to the glory they deserve.
John Lee Evans is president of the San Diego Unified Board of Education and has been a trustee since 2008. He is not seeking re-election in 2020.