California: The anti-education-reform state 

Across America, state after state has enacted bold, far-reaching systemic education reforms. In contrast, California has not only failed to enact such fundamental reforms, but has actually gone backwards and passed laws that reduce accountability, protect special interests and preserve the status quo.

In Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels signed legislation creating the nation’s biggest school-choice program. It will eventually make vouchers available to all low- and middle-income parents so they can choose the public or private school that best suits their children’s needs. The new program increases competition in the education marketplace that will force public schools to improve. In addition, the new voucher system won’t cost more money.

As the Associated Press noted about the Indiana program, “The vouchers themselves do not carry any additional expense for the state” since the “value of the vouchers is based on a sliding scale and is less than the amount of tax money a public school would have received for that student.” Other states have also passed school-choice legislation.

In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich signed a bill that quadruples the number of vouchers available to students attending failing public schools from 14,000 to 60,000, and creates a voucher for special-needs students. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation that expands the Milwaukee voucher program to include both low- and middle-income children, removes the cap on the number of eligible students who can participate in the Milwaukee program, and creates a new voucher program in Racine County. School choice, however, is just one of the major reforms that states are enacting.

In Nevada, a bipartisan effort on the part of Democrats in the state legislature and Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval resulted in important new education-reform laws. These laws create a new teacher-evaluation system where 50 percent of teacher ratings will be based eventually on student achievement data. The laws also dismantle the notorious seniority-based “last in, first out” teacher-layoff system, extend probationary periods for new teachers and place experienced teachers on probation if they consistently underperform.

Finally, while Wisconsin made headlines for its successful effort to reduce the power of teacher unions, other states have followed suit. Tennessee, for example, has eliminated teacher union collective bargaining and replaced it with a collaborative conferencing system between school districts and teachers. For its part, unfortunately, California has eschewed the reform path and instead has caved in to teacher unions.

Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed legislation, supported by the California Teachers Association, that prevents school districts, including those with huge budget deficits, from laying off teachers this year, thereby protecting union members and dues-rich union treasuries. The Democratic majority in the Legislature passed the new law with no time allowed for debate, which isn’t surprising given that the law also steals away the ability of county school superintendents to scrutinize and certify the fiscal soundness of school district budget plans.

In place of a positive education-reform agenda, Brown has spent most of his time pushing for extending now-expired higher taxes on upper-income Californians. However, even State Treasurer Bill Lockyer, a fellow Democrat, opposes the tax increase warning that the tax hike would cause affluent taxpayers to flee the state and actually reduce state revenues.

It’s time for California to break out of the political cocoon that enshrouds its education policy in mind-numbing darkness. Beyond the Sierras great things are happening. For the sake of California’s children, the state’s leaders must take notice and act.

Lance T. Izumi is Koret senior fellow and senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute.

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Lance T. Izumi

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