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California Schools Suffer From a Decade of Neglect

May 31, 1987|Harold L. Hodgkinson | Harold L. Hodgkinson, author of "California: The State and Its Educational System" (Institute for Educational Leadership, Washington), is a fellow of the American Council on Education

WASHINGTON — Southern Californians became more aware last week of a rancorous debate over how much money the state's public schools should get from a $2.7 billion state surplus, after Gov. George Deukmejian and his prime antagonist, Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, exchanged verbal blows on a call-in radio talk show.

The governor wants to give a portion of the surplus back to citizens in the form of a tax rebate, which might average $50 a taxpayer. Honig called such a rebate "peanuts" that would "sacrifice the future of California." The governor would grant the schools an additional $217 million, which isn't exactly peanuts, but given the magnitude of the schools' task, that much won't go far. California education has been managing on a subsistance budget for a long time now and is plainly malnourished.

The diversity of the state's school-age population gives an idea of the scope of the problem. It is becoming commonplace to hear that shortly after the year 2000, California will become a "minority majority" state. The non-Anglo majority is currently in California elementary schools, and by simply growing older--a demographic trick anyone can manage--they become tomorrow's adult workers, voters, consumers and families. It is vital to California that this future adult majority gets the best possible education and the chance to find well-paying and challenging work. This is one of the places where idealism and pragmatism find common ground.

The situation is not temporary--white fertility in California continues to decline from the baby-boom highs of 2.8 children per female to a current level of 1.7 and dropping, while Mexican-American fertility rates are stable at about 2.8 and blacks at 2.5 (it takes a rate of 2.1 children to stay even--two to replace parents and one-tenth to cover infant mortality). In addition to fertility, immigration also increases non-Anglo populations--almost two-thirds of the world's immigrants come to the United States, and nearly a third of that total comes to California, mostly from South America and Asia. Fifteen percent of Californians were born in another country, and 55% were born in another state, leaving only 30% of the California population who are "native."

How best to deal with the diversity of people from more than 100 countries who speak innumerable languages and dialects? By having superior public schools, that's how. A look at some facts will show how far there is to go:

--California's class sizes are next to largest in the nation, currently about 23 students per class. Large classes (and very large schools) promote anonymous feelings and increase drop-out rates. To get down to the national average of 17 students would mean to increase classrooms from the current level of about 174,000 to about 235,000, adding 61,000 classrooms and teachers. Even Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger would look seriously at such an investment. Given the ethnic and cultural diversity in California schools, the state should have the smallest classes in the country. However, increased enrollments will make even larger classes (and schools) more likely. As a matter of fact, by 1990, California schools will increase by 500,000 students, a group nearly as large as the current student population of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

--Partly because California is putting a very diverse student population into some of the country's biggest classes, school retention rate to graduation from high school ranks among the 10 worst states in the nation. About 30% of California youth will enter adult life without even a high school diploma to help them on their way.

--It is obvious that California higher education can be no better than California schools. The quality of the California work force will depend on how well the whole educational system functions, from kindergarten to graduate school.

Senate Bill 813--the major California school-reform bill passed in 1983, the California Achievement Council, the PACE (Policy Analysis for California Education) project and many other indicators suggest that California (unlike Texas, for example) is beginning to take actions that will ensure every young person in the state an equitable chance of high levels of school achievement. Raising graduation standards without appropriating additional resources is like a high-jump coach who, finding a jumper who can't make a five-foot jump, simply puts the bar at six feet to check the results. That's an unneeded experiment, yet one we perform on schoolchildren every day.

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