Don’t shelve economical fixes to state schools

Talk about bad timing. The long-anticipated report of the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence is full of sensible, inexpensive and uncontroversial ideas for improving California’s floundering schools. But the findings became public just when the state is reeling from a $16 billion budget deficit, so even the report’s most promising no-cost reorganization suggestions might well gather dust.

Like last year’s voluminous, 1,700-page Stanford report, the governor’s blue-ribbon task force concluded that California’s K-12 public schools are fundamentally flawed and need both sweeping reorganization and some more money. This state is near the bottom nationally for student scores as well as per-student spending.

But the new report offers many more specific recommendations than previous studies attempted. Those recommendations cover a wide range of political acceptability, with some of the most attention-grabbing elements widely recognized as too costly or controversial to be approved in today’s Sacramento climate. The committee’s call for an additional $10.5 billion in annual school spending would definitely not pass while Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s next budget seeks a much-protested $4.3 billion cut in schools. And teachers’ unions are manning the barriers to defeat the committee’s recommendation for merit pay linked to student performance.

But the foundation of the report’s analysis is that the California school system “has become so convoluted, constrained and bureaucratic that it actually impedes educators from teaching our students effectively. … Many of our best successes occur where educators figure out ways to get around the system.” The committee suggests programs to dismantle bureaucracy-induced obstacles by simply redirecting existing resources.

One measure would return the “primary decision-making authority in K-12 education to local schools, districts and counties” that should be expected to have the best understanding of local needs. Schools would get state funding entirely on a per-student basis, without all those strings attached in the existing “category” grant system. Teachers would be allowed considerably more flexibility in how they present their lessons.

Proposals such as these do not spend more money and could go a long way toward delivering a better education to California’s 6.3 million students. There is no reason to delay moving forward with them.

Originally, the Education Excellence report was meant to kick off 2008 as Gov. Schwarzenegger’s “year of education.” However, that plan fell away when the 2007 “year of health care reform” ground to a halt without results, and then drastically falling revenues turned 2008 into the “year of desperate budget-balancing.”

Now the governor is hailing the committee report as an outstanding blueprint for incremental reforms, as fiscal conditions permit. And that is the way it should be utilized, instead of being relegated to the graveyard of well-meaning but forgotten blue-ribbon studies.

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