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COVID Highlights California’s Education Failures

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Michael D. Tanner

One of the most interesting things about the COVID-19 pandemic is the way it has exposed previously existing flaws in so many government institutions. Many of California’s long-standing problems, from housing to the criminal justice system to business regulation have been both exacerbated and highlighted by COVID. In particular, the pandemic has made it difficult to ignore problems with the state’s public school system.

For example, nearly all California public schools remain closed, and most cities have no plans for when and how to reopen. As a result, more than six million California children are currently unable to attend classes. While Los Angeles County schools could reopen today under state regulations, LA Unified School District’s reopening date is still pending, as negotiations with the teachers’ union drags on. Meanwhile in San Francisco, which has yet to put forward a reopening plan, the school board has been embroiled in a fight over renaming schools.

School closures are bad for children in many ways. Children suffer psychologically from the absence of contact and socialization. They are less able to build relationships with their teachers, and studies show that academic performance declines substantially. Parents often have to sacrifice work and income in order to stay home and care for school age kids.

All of these problems are particularly severe for poor and minority students who frequently lack access to broadband and other “study from home” materials. A McKinsey report predicted that white students would be set back four to eight months worth of learning, while students of color could be set back eight to twelve months.

Of course, California schools were not exactly thriving before the pandemic. The Golden State ranks 39th in reading and 41st in math performance at the eighth grade level. Nor is this a question of funding. The state ranks in the middle of the pack when it comes to education funding, spending roughly $12,000 per student, more in big cities. In Los Angeles, the public school system spends just under $19,000 per student, the 7th highest of the top 30 largest districts.

Responsibility for California’s educational failures is shared by local school districts and the state. While some observers have pointed to the power of teacher unions in the state’s politics, it’s necessary to dig a little deeper to get to an answer. Specifically, California’s schools, even for large cities, are run by largely independent school boards, rather than mayors. Members of these school boards are elected in low-turnout elections, in which voters may not have much information about the candidates. In a 2019 runoff election for a seat on the board of Los Angeles Unified School District, for instance, turnout amounted to less than 8 percent. While this election was an outlier for its low turnout, even in the 2020 election, turnout for LAUSD districts three and seven elections was lower than countywide turnout as a percent of registered voters by about 5 to 13 percent. The voters who do turn out are disproportionately white, compared with the students who the district serves. Although some cities have moved away from this approach, in San Francisco and some other cities, board members are elected to at-large seats by the district as a whole, instead of to subdistrict seats, which further dilutes the voice of minority voters.

This system contrasts with big-city school districts elsewhere in the country, including in New York, Washington D.C., and Chicago, where city governments control schools through a variety of means including the appointment of an individual or board who manages the schools. While this system isn’t perfect, it at least gives voters a higher profile elected official to hold accountable than their local school board. Notably, a proposal by then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to gain control over Los Angeles’ schools failed in court. Another approach, more common in the Southeast, is to use county-wide districts which, despite the troubled history of education in the South, has allowed for more equity-focused reforms in recent years.

Meanwhile, at the state level, there has been long-standing hostility towards the state’s charter schools, one of the few bright spots for California education. Charters have outperformed more traditional public schools in California for students who are in poverty. One study from Stanford University showed gains equaling 14 days’ worth of learning in reading and 29 days in math. And despite concerns that charter schools may siphon money from traditional public schools, there’s evidence that shows increased charter enrollment has no ill effect on districts’ finances.

Despite this, California’s school funding system caps the additional funding that charter schools can receive to help them serve disadvantaged youth, cutting funding by about one-fifth compared to traditional public schools, and more for charters that have high concentrations of disadvantaged students.

And, it’s worth noting that the state lacks any other form of school choice.

The COVID crisis has further exposed, among other problems, the ways that California’s educational system marginalizes disadvantaged students and limits the schools that perform best for them. On the other hand, this is an opportunity to get things right for the future and build back a more inclusive society. As California recovers from the pandemic state policymakers would do well to examine the systems that failed and to implement reforms that emphasize accountability so that Californians can enjoy the benefits of a competent government going forward.

Cato’s project on Poverty and Inequality in California will be keeping on eye on this debate as it progresses.


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