The 2021–22 school year was supposed to be a rebound to normalcy, with Covid in the rearview mirror. Instead, midway through, the year is “shock and overload,” with teachers and administrators “working harder and losing ground,” as Mike Kirst, former president of the State Board of Education, put it. Not for everyone in every school, but the overall picture ahead is equally dreary. Students are struggling, teachers are tired and many parents are disgruntled.
There will be record school funding again next year, which will make staff shortages all the more frustrating. But, as quotable film star Mae West would say: “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor, and rich is better.”
Measuring Covid’s impact
Testing: This spring, California’s third-through-eighth-graders and 11th-graders will resume taking a shortened version of Smarter Balanced standardized tests in language arts and math, after missing two years because of the pandemic. Based on results from interim assessments that most districts administered the past two years, the Smarter Balanced scores will be abysmal, with a widening of the already-big gaps in scores between white students and their Black and Latino peers.
In pre-pandemic 2018–19, 51% of California students met or exceeded standards in English language arts, and 40% met or exceeded standards in math on the Smarter Balanced tests.
Battle over mandatory vaccinations
Adding Covid to the list of required childhood vaccinations will be the most contentious issue legislators will take up in 2022.
In October, Newsom issued an executive order mandating Covid vaccinations for students to attend school in person, pending final vaccine approval by the FDA. His executive order included a personal-belief exemption. Eliminating it could be done through a statute; no other mandated childhood vaccination, like polio and measles, allows an exemption. The political heat to include a personal exemption will be intense from anti-vaccine parents, and the challenge of providing separate schooling for tens of thousands of unvaccinated kids next year will be daunting.
Education initiatives in November
Education could figure prominently among voter initiatives in November if proponents gather the 997,139 signatures necessary to qualify a school-choice measure for the ballot. There could be two initiatives, in addition to a proposed constitutional amendment creating the right to a high-quality public education. The California Teachers Association will be spending millions of dollars to defeat them.
California voters haven’t been receptive to school choice in the past. In 1994 and again in 2000, initiatives to approve school vouchers, in which the state would pay full or partial tuition to a private or religious school that a family chose, received only 30% of the vote. Given that history, it’s a wonder that school-choice allies couldn’t unite around one proposal. Instead, two groups are collecting signatures for a school-choice alternative: education savings accounts. While different in details, they’re similar enough that the Attorney General’s Office gave them identical wording for their initiative titles. See the versions by Fix California and California School Choice for the distinctions.
Education savings accounts differ from vouchers in that funding would go directly to parents to spend for a private, religious, charter or home school arrangement instead of as a tuition voucher to a school. Recipients could save what they don’t spend for post-high school education.
Masking and vaccination mandates have stirred anger against public schools among conservatives but also among Democrats frustrated over delayed school reopenings, indicating there may be wider support this time.
If backers collect signatures and voters agree with the initiative, California will join Florida, Illinois and Virginia, whose state constitutions entitle public school students to a “high-quality” education.
Behind the effort is David Welch, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who financed the Vergara v. California lawsuit, which challenged teacher tenure, dismissal and other workplace protection laws as harming students. He won in Superior Court but lost in the California Court of Appeal. One reason was that the state Constitution doesn’t guarantee a minimum level of quality.
Under the proposed initiative, parents and students could file a lawsuit to challenge policies, regulations and laws that they believe interfere with a high-quality education. The initiative would prohibit judges from mandating spending or taxes as remedies—a clause that some children’s advocates argue will undermine bringing future lawsuits to achieve adequate funding levels for schools.
The State Board of Education swings back and forth on when to encourage California students to take Algebra I. In 2008, the board mandated that all eighth graders take Algebra 1. The board backed off several years later, when studies showed that large numbers of low-income students who took Algebra 1 in eighth grade repeated it in ninth grade and still did poorly.
The commission that advises the state board on academic standards recommended last spring that all students should take the same math courses in middle school, and algebra in ninth grade. Without pressure to take Algebra earlier, students would do better and take more advanced math courses in high school, the draft said. The commission highlighted an internal study by San Francisco Unified that purported to make that case.
Hundreds of college math, science and engineering professors slammed the position in letters to the board and governor, arguing that uniformity is not equity. It punishes students ready for algebra in middle school and discourages students interested in majoring in science, technology, engineering and math by making them double up math courses to take calculus by their senior year. A parent group’s critique of San Francisco’s study found the district mischaracterized and cherry-picked key data.
The state board pushed back their final decision to this summer. The next draft of the new nonbinding math curriculum framework is expected to be released this month.
K-12 school construction
With Covid exposing the health risks of aging school buildings and $3 billion in local school projects approved and waiting for state matching money, school-renovation proponents will be stalking the halls of the Capitol this spring. Money could come through a $10-plus-billion state bond on the November ballot; the Assembly and Senate passed differing bond proposals last year. Or, it could be funded through a state-budget surplus; the Assembly already said that’s its preference.
Schools nationwide have become the new battlegrounds for culture wars, including rural counties throughout the state and Republican strongholds in Southern California. Riled up by transgender rights, mandated ethnic studies and a vaccine mandate, some conservative parents and activists are threatening to exit public schools while others are vowing to change them from within by running for school boards. Organizations like Education Impact, a coalition of faith-based groups and conservative nonprofits, have held seminars on how to homeschool, either individually or collectively, and how to run for school boards. The impact—with 1,000 school districts—will be diffuse.