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Don't lower the science bar, governor

Lifting the state requirement that California high school students take two years of science might save money, but only in the short term.

June 07, 2012
  • Kelechi Okereke and Andrew Wilde-Price, right, conduct an experiment for an AP chemistry class at Berkeley High. In his budget proposal, Gov. Jerry Brown calls for lifting the requirement for students to take a second year of science in order to graduate.
Kelechi Okereke and Andrew Wilde-Price, right, conduct an experiment… (Los Angeles Times )

It's one thing to give school districts more authority over their budgets so they can bring students to the highest possible levels of educational attainment, as Gov. Jerry Brown wisely proposes in his budget plan. But Brown also, unacceptably, would include in that authority the freedom to lower educational standards by scaling back science requirements in high school.

Lifting the state requirement that students take a second year of science in order to graduate would free Sacramento from its obligation to cover the cost for that second year, which amounts to about $250 million a year. It's not as though the state has been paying up in recent years, but it does owe the money and the tab is growing.

Brown's proposal wouldn't cause most school districts to cut back on science offerings, at least not initially. But as districts struggle year after year with the cost of offering laboratory science courses — they're more expensive than many other subjects — school officials might give the option of dropping courses a second look. After all, under the federal No Child Left Behind Act they're judged by how their students perform in math and English. Dropping the second year of science would both save money and allow them to put more energy into the subjects the federal government cares about.

That sort of cutback isn't likely to happen in affluent areas where educated parents insist on a rigorous college-prep curriculum for their children. No, the school districts that would be most tempted to reduce science classes would be the poorest ones, with the highest numbers of disadvantaged and minority students. Those students already are less likely to get an excellent education and to graduate with the courses required to enter one of the state's four-year public colleges and universities.

And those institutions of higher education might, in turn, feel pressured to lower admissions requirements as more students lack access to necessary course work. The University of California and California State University require two years of high school science, and UC recommends three years.

Working with inadequate budgets, schools are unquestionably having a hard time meeting high standards, but the answer isn't to drop standards altogether. The state can't afford this kind of steep downward spiral in education, especially in the sciences, where many of the future jobs will be — and where important discoveries will be made on behalf of mankind. On this page, we have expressed concerns about school districts and state officials who have pushed to require the full college-prep curriculum for graduation without first taking the steps to ensure that students are well prepared for those courses. But moving backward on academic rigor makes even less sense.

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