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Local District Should Take Lead in State Funding Crisis

By Menaka Fernando
Special to The Lookout

April 18 -- For meaningful strides to be made in California's ailing K-12 public education system, higher-income districts -- such as Santa Monica's -- must lead the way to help lower-income schools, state legislators and education experts said Saturday.

Acknowledging that it's hard to explain to people in Santa Monica and Malibu that their money is going to kids elsewhere, State Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, D-Los Angeles, urged the district to take the lead in reforming an education system that ranks among the lowest in the nation by several measures.

"If Santa Monica-Malibu is not leading the way ... we are lost," she told a group of more than 200 community members.

Goldberg joined a panel of legislators, educators, researchers and one litigator who discussed the future of California's public schools during a community forum coordinated by the RAND Corporation, a leading national think tank.

Schools Superintendent Dr. John Deasy cautioned that simply adding more money to the pot is not the answer and pushed to discuss where the money would be spent calling for a more "targeted investment."

Louise Jaffe, co-chair of Santa Monica's Community for Excellent Public Schools, assured the panel and audience that the city's education activists are working hard to improve public education.

Her group is joining the State PTA to lobby the legislature and governor in Sacramento in the coming weeks, Jaffe said.

The panel reached an apparent consensus that the situation was dire.

RAND researcher Stephen Carroll gave student academic achievement in the State an "F" and noted that solving the complex problem would take as much community organizing as legislative action.

From high student-to-teacher ratios and poor quality teachers to lack of resources and too much emphasis on standardized testing, experts listed a variety of reasons for the failure of the State's education system.

Deasy said he was struck by the widespread apathy and inequity in education throughout the state.

"What struck me most is how complacent ... we are to the conditions we are in," Deasy said.

But not all the news was glum. Lance Izumi, director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, submitted a paper arguing that California is making strides in education after a move in recent years to hold schools more accountable.

The panel discussion comes on the heels of the release of a recent RAND study entitled "California's K-12 Public Schools: How Are They Doing?"

Not too well, researchers concluded.

Since about the early 1980's, California has seen a steady decline in teacher-to-pupil ratio and per-pupil expenditures, while the country has experienced a steady increase, the study found.

In the 1999-2000 school year (the last year for which RAND has statistics), the teacher-to-pupil ratio was 20 students per teacher in the State, compared to 15 in the nation.

In the same year, California's per-pupil expenditure was approximately $6,000 -- about $1,000 less than the national average.

The study also found that California ranked 47th in the state in student achievement levels and ranked last when race and income levels were factored into the comparison. The data was compiled by combining reading and math scores of 4th graders and 8th graders from 1990 to 2003.

What's more disturbing than the study's findings is how much worse the situation has become since the State slashed the education budget in 1999-2000, Goldberg said.

State senator Sheila Keuhl, D-Santa Monica, encouraged the community to get involved in their local school districts.

"My passion alone about getting more money to schools is not sufficient," Keuhl said. "That means organizing."

At times, the discussion centered on the controversial No Child Left Behind Act -- a Bush Administration policy that requires schools to improve test scores each year and imposes sanctions on schools that fail to do so.

The act aims to have 100 percent proficiency in math and reading by 2013. Critics say the act overemphasizes basics and testing skills, while placing too little importance on critical thinking.

Though educators on the panel agree that some type of standard testing is necessary in order to hold schools accountable, it should not be a sole indicator of a school's achievement.

Also on the panel was Catherine Lhamon, the principal litigator in the class-action lawsuit, Williams v. State of California, which alleged that the State's substandard education system is unconstitutional.

A $1 billion settlement was reached last month that ensures, among other things, textbooks for all students and a complaint-filing procedure, Llamon said.

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