Sigrid Bathen

Writer, Editor, Teacher

Tag: education

Democrats divided: The race for state schools superintendent

By Sigrid Bathen posted September 23, 2014


For an obscure elective office that is often ignored, unknown or regarded as superfluous in California’s convoluted education bureaucracy, the November election for state Superintendent of Public Instruction is shaping up as one of the most contentious — and costly — races among statewide candidates.

The superintendency typically is viewed as a down-ticket backwater – a nonpartisan office with limited power that some say should be abolished.

Superintendent Tom Torlakson, 65, a mild-mannered former state legislator, Contra Costa County supervisor and high school science teacher, against charter-school administrator Marshall Tuck, 41, a Harvard Business School graduate who worked for several years in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street.

But this year, it has become a lightning rod for widespread dissatisfaction with schools in California, which have consistently been ranked among the lowest-performing and poorly funded in the nation.

At the center of the campaign battle is a Superior Court judge’s blistering decision favoring the plaintiffs in Vergara v. California, a closely watched lawsuit challenging the state’s cumbersome, expensive, teacher-tenure and dismissal system. And while ostensibly nonpartisan, the race between two Democratic candidates in a heavily Democratic state has revealed long-standing divisions among Democrats over education reform.

“This is a battle that has been raging [within] the Democratic Party for about 20 years, but it has become quite fierce,” Dr. Raphael Sonenshein, director of the Pat Brown Institute at California State University, Los Angeles, recently told the education news service, Cabinet Report. “In California, with Democrats so dominant, you look for issues that are going to divide the majority party, and I think this one is pretty close to the top.”

The election pits an embattled but well-funded incumbent Superintendent Tom Torlakson, 65, a mild-mannered former state legislator, Contra Costa County supervisor and high school science teacher, against charter-school administrator Marshall Tuck, 41, a Harvard Business School graduate who worked for several years in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street before founding the highly regarded Green Dot Charter Schools. Later, he was CEO of former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Partnership for L.A. Schools.

Another round of independent expenditures – which by law cannot be coordinated with the candidates’ campaigns – is expected in the general election season.

While outspent in the primary by Torlakson supporters – primarily massive spending by the California Teachers Association and other unions — Tuck has major support from several wealthy pro-charter donors, including philanthropist Eli Broad and businessman William Bloomfield. Tuck’s campaign benefited from some $1.4 million in independent expenditures, including several large contributions from the California Senior Advocates League PAC, a group funded primarily by Broad and Bloomfield.

Tuck was been endorsed over Torlakson – in the primary — by all major California newspapers, which is unusual so early in the election season.

The CTA and other unions spent $2.6 million in the primary for broadcast and print ads for Torlakson, and another $2 million for “issue ads,” which featured Torlakson but don’t expressly advocate for the candidate.

Another round of independent expenditures – which by law cannot be coordinated with the candidates’ campaigns – is expected in the general election season, although both candidates and their handlers are understandably vague about when or how much. A recent spate of independent expenditures on Torlakson’s behalf came from the CTA, the state and national Federation of Teachers and other labor unions – some $450,000 as of Sept. 19, according to Election Track and the Secretary of State’s office.

According to state financial disclosure records, both candidates reported less than $200,000 cash on hand as of June 30 – $194,550 for Torlakson and $179, 913 for Tuck. Total reported expenditures by each candidate from Jan. 1 through June 30 were very close – more than $1.14 million for Torlakson and just over $1 million for Tuck. But as of mid-September, a sharp uptick in candidate contributions favored Tuck, with $381,000 for Torlakson and $448,000 for Tuck.

Consultant: “There was a horrible turnout in the primary and [likely to be] horrible in the general. It’s very hard to get anybody’s attention — unless you have money.”

“There is a ton of money involved,” said Kim Alexander of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit which monitors campaign spending and elections. “The unions appear to be stepping up for Torlakson because he has an opponent who has demonstrated he can raise significant amounts of money.”

Getting the Word Out. . .
A veteran campaign consultant knowledgeable about the election said funding for the schools is improving with the economy and strong public support for school funding, but getting the word out is difficult, and running for a little-known state schools office requires campaign cash.

“Unfortunately for a lot of us who care deeply about these issues,” said the consultant, who asked not to be identified, “this is the most difficult time to run for statewide office. There was a horrible turnout in the primary and [likely to be] horrible in the general. It’s very hard to get anybody’s attention — unless you have money. . .

“If you look at the people who fund Tuck’s campaign, they have a very different view of what is a public school, and ‘reform’ is often code for vouchers. People upset with the schools are upset with the cutbacks — no money for counselors, for nothing but the bare minimum. This was the first spring when there haven’t been pink slips. Because of Proposition 30 (Gov. Brown’s sales and income tax initiative, which was passed in 2012 and strongly supported by Torlakson), there is now some capacity to put money back into the schools.”

“I support due-process rights for teachers, but the law is broken and needs to be changed,” he said. “The tenure process is dysfunctional.” — Gary Hart

Tuck, who has never run for public office, says he decided to run after his efforts in the L.A. Partnership, aimed at turning around 17 dismally performing schools in low-income, central-city neighborhoods, were repeatedly stymied by arcane teacher hiring and dismissal rules in an entrenched education bureaucracy.

The strongly worded Vergara decision on June 10 — and reaffirmed in a final ruling on Aug. 28 — came at a fortuitous time for the upstart young candidate, galvanizing public opinion on school inequality and teacher tenure. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu said K-12 education in California “shocks the conscience” and is flatly unconstitutional for many students, particularly those in poor and minority neighborhoods – a decision which has focused unusually intense attention on the race, as well as copious amounts of campaign cash.

The decision is almost certain to be mired in a lengthy appeals process, and the issue of appealing Vergara is itself controversial.

“These court battles can go on for many years, and nothing may happen, but I hope this does help generate more attention,” says former state Sen. Gary Hart, D-Santa Barbara, a former high school teacher who chaired the Senate Education Committee for 12 years. He was education secretary to Gov. Gray Davis and is the author of many major education bills, including measures to increase school funding and create charter schools.

“I support due-process rights for teachers, but the law is broken and needs to be changed,” he said. “The tenure process is dysfunctional.”

Those with long experience in California education – some of whom do not want to be quoted by name in a contentious race – say that too often “blame the incumbent” becomes the mantra when public dissatisfaction with schools drives elections. In this election, many say, “blame the teachers” becomes an equally convenient form of scapegoating in a Byzantine state education system with plenty of blame to go around.

A recent Field Poll found Tuck leading Torlakson among likely voters by 31 percent to 28 percent – with a whopping 41 percent undecided. The Tuck campaign issued a jubilant press release about the poll in which campaign manager/communications director Cynara Lilly said “voters are ready for a change” and “when given a choice, will choose the candidate with experience turning around public schools – not the Sacramento insider.”

Gov. Brown chose not to appoint a Secretary of Education, instead focusing on the role of the state board as a policy-making body and emphasizing more local control of schools.

But early polls often do not reflect final outcomes. What does appear likely is this: The coming weeks will unleash a blizzard of campaign ads – mainly paid for by massive infusions of independent expenditures.

“This is a battle between the CTA and so-called education ‘reformers’ who hate the unions, and have their own agendas about the way the schools should be run,” said one veteran political analyst who asked not to be named. “They have a certain notoriety because of the public’s clamor about bad schools. . .Does it matter? Does it make a difference? That depends on what you think about the power of the superintendent.”

Hart and many other longtime educators involved in education politics say the superintendency is a largely ceremonial position, with few powers beyond the “bully pulpit.” Hart, who seriously considered running for the job and ultimately decided against it, has long said the office should be abolished.

The current system, critics say, too often works at cross-purposes, with an elected state superintendent, who heads the state Department of Education, as well as a state Board of Education appointed by the governor, plus hundreds of local school districts and boards, county offices of education and boards.

Gov. Brown chose not to appoint a Secretary of Education, instead focusing on the role of the state board as a policy-making body and emphasizing more local control of schools. In a recent interview with Education Week magazine, board President Michael Kirst, a veteran state and national educator and administrator, said California “for years had a fractured and fractious policymaking system,” creating confusion over “who was in charge.” He said the governor has worked closely with the board and Torlakson, “most of whose positions on education are close to his own.”

‘Blame the Teachers’
Both Torlakson and Brown took considerable heat over their recent decision to appeal the popular Vergara decision. The state’s appeal was filed Aug. 29.

“The system is so convoluted and it can take two to three years or more, costing districts $100,000 (and more). There is no reason for these cases to drag on so long,” — Joan Buchanan

Torlakson says the Superior Court decision is constitutionally flawed and unfairly blames teachers for problems in schools. “The people who dedicate their lives to the teaching profession deserve our admiration and support,” he said in a prepared statement after the August ruling. “Instead, this ruling lays the failings of our education system at their feet.”

“No teacher is perfect,” he added. “A very few are not worthy of the job. School districts have always had the power to dismiss those who do not measure up.” He pointed to a bill he and the governor supported, by Assembly Education Committee Chair Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, which aims to shorten the arduous hearing and appeal process.

Although critics say the measure provides only limited relief, Buchanan, who served 18 years on the San Ramon Valley school board, including four terms as president, says it is a good first step and brings opposing sides in the controversy to the table. “The system is so convoluted,” she said, “and it can take two to three years or more, costing districts $100,000 (and more). There is no reason for these cases to drag on so long,”

Colleagues and even longtime supporters of Torlakson are often torn about the election, particularly prominent Democratic educators who may be union members.

But they also know firsthand the failings of the teacher-tenure and disciplinary process, which has allowed efforts to discipline or fire clearly incompetent, even abusive, teachers to drag on for years, deterring administrators from even attempting to fire a teacher because of the time and expense of the hearing and appeal process.

“When a district goes into receivership (state takeover), it’s usually been a long way to get there, and it’s a long way to get out. We’ve made real progress, but we still have a ways to go.” — Paul Hefnerf

Also at issue in the election is the current two-year probationary period for new teachers, which critics say is actually only 16 months and is not remotely sufficient to determine a teacher’s competence. Nor, they say, does the current system provide adequate support and mentoring to a new teacher who may be having trouble in the classroom.

Dr. Barbara O’Connor, a prominent retired political communications professor at California State University, Sacramento, who founded the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media, said Torlakson “gets blamed for all the woes of education,” including the financial collapse of many school districts in California. And, while Torlakson is blamed for education’s failings, she added “he also has access to [campaign] finances, so it counter-balances.”

Torlakson campaign manager Paul Hefner says the number of districts in financial trouble has dwindled substantially since Torlakson took office in 2011. “At the height of the crisis, one of three kids attended a school [that was] in financial trouble,” Hefner said. “When a district goes into receivership (state takeover), it’s usually been a long way to get there, and it’s a long way to get out. We’ve made real progress, but we still have a ways to go.”

As a former department chair, O’Connor said she often faced personnel and tenure issues, which come with different rules at the university level, and much longer “probationary” periods. “In the universities, you have to wait seven years,” she said. “It’s an onerous process. To have collective bargaining and tenure is tough. I can’t imagine [granting tenure] after only 16 months.”

A union member (the California Faculty Association in the CSU) throughout her long career in higher education, O’Connor says, “I believe in unions.” At the same time, “I’m not always happy with them (the unions). . .I’m ready for some people who want to take some risk.” She has not taken a position in the election. She says she has visited Tuck’s Green Dot Schools and was impressed. “He’s nontraditional,” she said, “and smart.”

“And I’ve always supported Tom Torlakson, since he was in the Assembly,” O‘Connor added. “He’s a great human being, and his daughter Tamara is a friend (Tamara Torlakson is a senior associate at Dewey Square Group, a political consulting firm).”

‘Crippling Bureaucracy’
In an interview with Capitol Weekly, Tuck said the state’s education system “has been broken for a long time, and we do need real change. I’m not a politician, I’ve learned what it takes to do this work.”

But he’s vague on the specifics of how he would change a system entrenched in layers upon layers of legislative, administrative and legal requirements, both state and federal. He said he favors a collaborative approach – a position similar to Torlakson’s.

“The [state] Education Code constrains what can be done, and it’s a crippling bureaucracy,” Tuck said. “There is no individual position that is all-powerful, but this (the superintendency) is a uniquely influential position, for setting the vision, for fundamental change. It is the one position that is non-partisan, focused only on kids, with the ‘bully pulpit’ and specific assigned powers to drive unique change and move the work forward. But it has to be a collective effort.”

As for teacher discipline, he favors major changes in the process, one in which “you touch a kid, and you’re gone.” Working in challenging L.A. schools as part of the partnership with Villaraigosa and L.A. Unified, Tuck said, “We had teachers who literally hit kids and pushed them around, but we were told we couldn’t fire them.”

At the same time, he said, the increasingly controversial “last-hired-first-fired” system of union-backed hiring meant that many excellent teachers were regularly facing pink slips every spring – a particularly serious issue in low-performing schools in poor areas with high teacher turnover. “We had to lay off teachers of very high quality,” Tuck said. At one school, he said, half the teachers got layoff notices, while at other, more desirable schools, “only 5 percent received layoff notices.”

Tuck insists he favors tenure, and disagrees with the pro-voucher, anti-tenure views of some of his well-heeled supporters. “I’ve only worked in union schools,” he added. “I’m an independent, first and foremost.”

Former state Superintendent Delaine Eastin, who founded the California Teacher of the Year Foundation to provide funding for recognition of outstanding teachers and is on Torlakson’s list of supporters, said many top teachers favor significant changes in the probationary and tenure system which is at the heart of the current election. “Some of those teachers are not in favor of the current tenure system,” she said. “Many favor a three-year probationary period, with levels of [job] protection. . .I do think it’s too hard and too expensive to fire a teacher for doing evil things, let alone incompetence.”

California remains one of the lowest among the states in per-pupil spending.

Whatever happens in the superintendent’s election, with its promises of reform and a blizzard of campaign cash, the role of the office comes down to educating kids in an increasingly diverse, economically divided state with some 6 million kids currently attending public schools – an estimated one-fourth of them poor, many attending substandard facilities with overcrowded classrooms, too many failing to complete high school.

And while teacher tenure has become a driving issue in the election, adequate school funding is hardly mentioned. “Both sides agree on the need for more funding,” says Sonenshein. “They disagree about how education should be delivered.”

Post-recessionary infusions to K-12 budgets, with emphasis on poor and low-performing schools, in the governor’s budget are a good start, Eastin and others say, but hardly address the overcrowded classes, aging buildings, staff cutbacks and other gaping holes in the system that began with the 1978 passage of the property-tax limitation initiative, Proposition 13.

California remains one of the lowest among the states in per-pupil spending. “The solution is a long-term plan to get us back to where we fully fund K-12,” says Eastin.

As a young community college teacher in southern California in the 1970s, who became a state legislator and state schools superintendent, Eastin also taught youths at a juvenile detention facility – an experience that helped drive her views of public education in California, which spends far more to incarcerate young people than to educate them.

“It was an excellent experience for determining policy,” she mused. “The state Constitution doesn’t say that the first priority is incarceration. It says the first priority is education.”

Ed’s Note: Sigrid Bathen is a longtime education writer who teaches journalism at California State University, Sacramento.

Tackling the teacher tenure issue

The reasons for job security provisions are valid and date back decades, but the system needs streamlining.

by Sigrid Bathen published May 20, 2009


Well into the 20th century, teachers in the United States were treated as school property, paid meager salaries and expected to do the bidding of boards and principals. Black teachers of either sex could teach only in substandard segregated schools, and female teachers — black or white — could be summarily dismissed for all variety of reasons: wearing skirts above the ankle, being out in the evenings or even getting married.

Mary Louise Phillips was a young elementary school teacher in Phoenix in the fall of 1941. She was teaching her first class of third-graders in a segregated school and quietly seeing a fellow teacher she had met in college, Wilson Riles, who worked seven hours of treacherous mountain roads away, at a one-room school for the children of black sawmill workers in the tiny northern Arizona town of McNary.

The two young teachers wanted to get married — but if they did, she would lose her Phoenix job immediately. “Wilson said I had to consent to marry him,” recalls Mary Louise Riles, now 89, “or he’d have to stop making that drive.” So they eloped, managing to keep the marriage secret for a couple of months, until she joined her husband as a teacher in McNary, where the rules for married teachers were less rigid.

Three decades later, Wilson Riles would be elected California superintendent of public instruction, becoming California’s first African American elected to statewide office.

The origins of teacher tenure are firmly rooted in rank discrimination against women and were closely tied to the women’s rights movement. California was the first state to mandate “permanent” status for teachers, after two years on the job, in 1921. Other states followed. But most of those gains were swept away in the midst of the Depression. And in one form or another, capricious, even sexist rules governing teachers were commonplace well into the 1960s and ’70s. All teachers were at risk if they spoke out at board meetings or engaged in political activity that went against prevailing opinions in their districts.

In one key California case, Paul Finot, who taught at John Muir High School in Pasadena, was reassigned to home teaching in 1963 for refusing to shave a beard he’d grown over the summer. Eventually vindicated by an appeals court, he was asked in a lower court hearing if his beard was “an outgrowth” of his “radicalism,” and he replied that it was “an outgrowth of my six-week fishing trip.”

It was in that era that newly emergent teachers unions used their growing clout to challenge the laws and push for tenure everywhere — along with better pay, collective bargaining and due process in disciplinary actions that included the establishment of a quasi-judicial system to oversee dismissals. But nearly four decades after those victories, the system originally designed to improve working conditions and protect teachers against arbitrary terminations has evolved into a tangled and costly bureaucratic nightmare.

Critics argue that tenure protects incompetent teachers beyond all reason, keeping them on at a time when schools face draconian budget cuts, high dropout rates and gaping inequalities. Teachers’ groups counter that teachers deserve due process and that administrators fail to properly document and prove poor teaching.

Although measures to curb abuses of the dismissal process, and even to abolish tenure altogether, have been recently introduced in several states, such measures continue to meet fierce opposition from teachers unions, which are loath to give up any of the hard-won job protections built up over decades.

Clearly, the public’s patience is wearing thin. (A recent Times series documented the cumbersome discipline and dismissal process for teachers in horrific detail.) The layoffs of thousands of mostly younger, newly minted teachers in budget-strapped California has only exacerbated disaffection with the deeply troubled seniority system, which governs layoffs as well as assignments of “surplus” teachers when schools are closed or programs cut.

Privately, and sometimes publicly, traditionally warring education organizations — teachers unions and school administrators — insist they want lousy teachers removed from the classroom. But they rarely stand together on even the general parameters of a viable solution. Schools need better documentation of incompetent teaching, more support for teachers and fewer standardized directives on how to teach. All of this requires cooperation and compromise, and costs money.

Any overhaul of “post-tenure” teacher discipline must peel away multiple layers of administrative and legislative changes made over decades in order to create a more sensible and coherent system — one that recognizes the due process rights of teachers as well as ways to help them move on.

But any movement toward streamlining the process must begin with less finger-pointing and more serious dialogue among the key players in state education policy. This is not a new sentiment — but one that remains singularly unpopular in the state Capitol, where teachers unions (and their hefty campaign contributions) wield enormous clout.


Sigrid Bathen is a longtime education writer who teaches journalism at Cal State Sacramento.

A Success Story for Kids Who Can’t Make It in Regular School

by Sigrid Bathen published January 02, 2000


For 30 years, Miles P. Richmond was a special-education teacher and administrator in some of the poorest, toughest schools in the Sacramento area, retiring in 1990 as director of special ed for the Grant Joint Union High School District. He is legendary for maintaining a model special-ed program in the impoverished, fractured, politically volatile district that, most recently, made national headlines when a popular senior was murdered in a shop classroom after school, allegedly by an ex-con working as a janitor.

Grant is not a district usually touted as a model to follow in this age of education reform. But Richmond and a group of mostly retired colleagues are quietly working small miracles in a battered old school in a bleak north Sacramento neighborhood. They are part of a growing “alternative school” movement, education bureaucratese for programs that offer alternatives to the regular classroom for the huge population of students who cannot, for many reasons, attend regular classes. While they are students most clearly in need of help from an education system now targeted for unprecedented infusions of attention and cash, it remains to be seen how much they will actually benefit. Veterans like Richmond are understandably skeptical.

Unlike the developmentally disabled kids who were the focus of Richmond’s work for decades, students at the Grant Independent Learning Center, in general, are not physically or mentally limited. Their low achievement has more to do with their lives at home, where drug use, abuse and grinding poverty narrow their options. They may be in foster care, wards of the juvenile-dependency court, and they may have committed crimes. Many are teen mothers headed straight for public dependency. Some are unusually bright, bored and uninspired by the regular curriculum.

They are kids like Jessica (not her real name), who never believed that she could succeed in school. Gifted in art and a voracious reader, she was unable to enroll in the regular school curriculum because she is needed at home to help care for her mother and baby brother. Five other siblings were removed from the home because of her mother’s lifestyle, which Richmond described simply as “men, booze and drugs.” There is no mention of a father.

One of Jessica’s recent paintings was of a forest after a fire. “All the trees were burned, but there was some green coming up out of the earth,” says Richmond. “It was about her mom, her family, the drugs.” When Jessica met Richmond’s wife, Betty, she wanted to know how long they had been married. Answer: 46 years.

Long-term personal commitment isn’t a quality the kids at Grant Independent Learning Center know well, if at all. The stories of the 2,500 kids who have gone through the program in the past five years–most have graduated, many going on to college–are nothing if not daunting.

Like the homeless girl living with her family in their car, who was at the center for two weeks, then disappeared. While at the center, she wrote a poem about homelessness. Entitled “The Other People,” it spoke of “babies in the street, families without hope” and urged onlookers “disgusted” by the homeless not to be too quick to judge. “If you ask me,” the girl concluded, “without the money and the fancy things, we’re all the same.”

“That just grabbed my heart,” recalls Richmond. “We’re going to lose some really bright, valuable kids unless we discover them, and they’re not all wearing Polo sweatshirts.”

A key element of Richmond’s work with the kids in this alternative school, who must sign a contract, complete all assignments and meet with their teachers once each week–more frequently if they don’t finish their work–is the creation of a personal journal. Every morning, students take 15 minutes to write their thoughts down–about anything they choose. There are no computers, no word processors, not even any typewriters in this classroom, and generally none in the homes where the kids live.

Like many unusual and largely unsung alternative programs throughout California, the Grant center is something of a haven for these kids, though it mirrors inner-city schools everywhere–inadequate facilities and funding for books and supplies, technology or the arts. “We’re lucky if we have enough paper and pencils,” says Richmond, “and for a while last winter, we didn’t have any heat.” Yet, the kids have become so enamored of their newfound ability to put thoughts on paper that if he forgets to have them do their journal writing, they remind him.

He especially remembers one student’s entries. “She had a perfect attendance record, was doing great and thinking maybe she really could be a writer,” says Richmond. “One day before school, her boyfriend came over. He had the day off and was pestering her to stay home with him.” She persistently refused, saying she had to go to school, and he kept pressuring her to stay home.

“Finally–and she wrote these very words in her journal that day–she told him; ‘F— you, I’m going to school.’ ” And she did.

“We thought about translating that into Latin, if that’s possible,” Richmond mused, “and putting it on a banner on the wall as a kind of monument to this one girl’s determination to go to school. She lives in two worlds: the world here in independent study, where she has dignity, and the other world, where she is a survivor.”

The personal hurdles many of the kids in programs like Grant’s must overcome are often so overwhelming that their teachers mainly concentrate on just getting them to attend school. While many teachers give mightily of their own resources and time to kids with seemingly insurmountable problems, as Richmond did and does, many others “do their time” and get out, transferring as soon as possible to schools in better neighborhoods.

The 11,000-student Grant district, which includes 12 senior high and middle schools, has expanded the successes of the five-year-old Independent Learning Center (recently named Keema High School, after a popular former district superintendent, Elwood J. Keema) into four community outreach centers, and will send teachers into students’ homes if necessary. Randy Orzalli, director of education options for the district and principal of Keema, is working to expand the program further. He hopes to make the school a center for training teachers in the needs of alternative-school students.

Richmond and his mostly retired-teacher colleagues–the program includes five former principals on its faculty–meet every school day with the kids in the independent learning center, bringing magazines and books from home, eating lunch with their students, saving souls–and a life or two or three–and skeptical that the intense public and political focus on education will translate into money, attention or reform for the state’s most troubled schools and the kids most in need of help. To accommodate the push for class-size reduction, it has been estimated that some 250,000 new teachers must be trained in the next decade. California’s teacher-training system, widely criticized for its rigidity and its mediocrity, will face some serious testing of its own in coming years. Gov. Gray Davis, in his continuing push for education reform, has said he will make teacher training a major priority in his annual budget proposal.

“We can put up a modern building and buy new desks and chairs and bright, shiny textbooks,” says Richmond, “but too often we’ve lost the creativity in education. I don’t think Christ had a credential, or Gandhi, and Plato taught from a stump. Sure, we could use computers, and we need a safe, clean building to work in, and only as many students as you can handle. . . . We have 1975 National Geographics and used textbooks, and we use the free Sacramento Bees we get: the kids say they want practical education, and the stock quotes in the paper are great for teaching math.

“Kids are coming out here, and they’re writing and reading and computing. It’s teaching on the stump. And it works.”

Sigrid Bathen, an adjunct professor at Cal State Sacramento, has written extensively on education.

The Deeper Inequality Behind the AP-Course Suit

by Sigrid Bathen published October 17, 1999

SACRAMENTO — A class-action suit challenging that most fundamental of equal education rights–access–may well force the state’s education establishment to examine its two-tier system of public education, one for the children of the reasonably well-to-do, the other for everybody else. The suit has been likened to the landmark 1971 Serrano vs. Priest, which forced the state to address “wealth-related disparities” in school funding.

“Legally, it’s not a hard case,” said Mark D. Rosenbaum, legal director for the ACLU of Southern California and the lead attorney on the ACLU suit. “The state can turn this case into a model of response. California could, with an appropriate response to the question of these disparities, reassert itself as the crown jewel of education.”

The ACLU sued the state of California, not the governor, who has made education reform his “first, second and third” priority, and not the University of California, though UC’s admissions standards are at the heart of the controversy. Neither does the suit directly target inequality in the early grades, where it all begins, nor UC admissions policies, which were challenged earlier this year in a federal-court suit by a coalition of civil rights groups. Rather, it focuses on the vaunted system of “advanced-placement” college-prep courses that earn extra grade points and are increasingly critical to a student’s admission to UC schools.

In 1998, according to the suit, UC Berkeley rejected 8,000 applicants whose GPAs were 4.0 or higher, instead admitting students who had earned the extra grade points associated with the more rigorous AP courses. At UCLA, last year’s applicants had an average GPA of 4.19, and those students had taken an average of nearly 17 AP and honors classes. These courses are not widely available to predominantly minority students in many inner-city high schools nor to many white students in rural schools.

Although the suit is aimed at all schools with limited AP offerings, the named defendant, in addition to the state and Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, is the Inglewood Unified School District, which offers few AP courses to its predominantly African American and Latino students. The ACLU cites some sobering statistics: Inglewood High School offers only three AP courses; 129 California public high schools with 80,000 students do not offer any AP classes; and 333 schools offer four or fewer. In contrast, Beverly Hills High, with a student body that is 76.6% white, offers 14 AP “subjects” and 45 AP classes; the 144 public high schools in California that offer more than 14 AP classes are 65% white or Asian American. “In the face of its own data,” says Rosenbaum, “with its eyes wide shut, California places hundreds of thousands of its children on uneven playing fields sodded with quicksand.”

Legal hyperbole perhaps, but there is certainly no shortage of hard data to support it. There are also increasing indications that the state’s education bureaucracy is poised to take action on several fronts. Since nobody in the hydra-headed education leadership is interested in taking on the ACLU and its largely unassailable statistics in court, some kind of negotiated settlement is likely and long overdue. The gathering storm of data is overwhelming: the steep drop in minority admissions to UC since passage of Proposition 209 in 1996, and, just last month, the announcement of an alarming disparity between whites and other ethnic groups in college entrance exams.

Michael E. Hersher, general counsel in the state Education Department, says a “programmatic solution” is likely to the dilemma raised by the ACLU suit. “It may take a couple of months to work out between the superintendent and the governor and the plaintiffs, but we have a history of working things out with the ACLU, and they have a pretty pragmatic sense of how far we can go. . . . This is a genuine equity issue, and I think it will have enough political push to bring about a solution.”

In California’s quirky, often unmanageable education-governance system, the elected state superintendent heads the Education Department, but policy is made by the state Board of Education, which is appointed by the governor. Eastin and Gov. Gray Davis are both Democrats but historically sometimes at odds. Davis has been clear from the outset of his administration that it is he, not the superintendent, who sets the state’s education agenda.

Davis’ education secretary, former state Sen. Gary K. Hart, will be a key player. While not addressing the suit directly, Hart says Davis is “certainly enthusiastic” about AP courses. “It is consistent with his theme, his philosophy, his expectations. . . . Anything that encourages students to reach higher and take the toughest courses, he certainly supports that.”

AP courses are a subject Hart knows well. When director of the California State University Institute for Education Reform, Hart initiated a study of AP courses and their impact on student achievement and college readiness. The 21-page, largely unpublicized report, by William Furry, a veteran education advisor to the Legislature and deputy state education secretary in the administration of former Gov. Pete Wilson, reviewed AP courses in California secondary schools for 1997-98.

Noting that the AP program “has enjoyed explosive growth in California high schools in the past decade,” the report concluded that this growth has come “with little public attention and even less analysis.” At the same time, competition for admission to top universities, including UC, has become staggeringly intense, often hinging on the successful completion of AP-course work, which, according to the Furry report, makes college applications “more alluring and weighted for success.” The study utilized state and national databases to determine the availability of AP classes, the rate of student participation and their performance on the crucial AP exams.

In 1988, 39,040 public high school students took 56,668 AP exams. A decade later, those numbers had risen to 87,683 students and more than 145,000 exams. In the fall of 1997, 210,000 students were enrolled in AP classes, although Furry notes that the statewide database does not account for the number of individual students participating in the program, and many students take more than one AP class.

The report notes “certain key concerns,” in addition to the lack of statistical and programmatic analysis, about AP courses. Among them: the “elitist” nature of the program, which favors those “who have access to the best academic preparation–essentially providing only one favored subset of students with important tools for career success.” A corollary concern: “whether there is systematic bias against students because of location, gender or ethnicity.” Although AP courses are offered in inner-city schools, their availability is nowhere near that of many schools in suburban areas. Rural schools fare no better. More than 90% of California’s high schools offer AP courses, but many students, across all ethnicities and socioeconomic strata, have limited AP opportunities.

Furthermore, the report concludes, “in schools across all levels of AP-program size,” Latinos and African Americans participate at rates “substantially below their share of total school enrollment.” Those who do participate score lower than white and Asian students, and nearly one-third don’t take the required post-course exams. In a range of 1-5 (5 being the top score, 3 a passing score), blacks had the lowest scores: 64.6% scored a 1 or 2, Latinos only slightly better. By contrast, 32.7% of whites and 37.4% of Asians who took tests scored 1 or 2.

“In the final analysis, it’s not so much the availability [of AP classes] as the preparation [for them],” Furry says. “In schools with large populations of low-income minority students, the minority students, by and large, are not participating.” But he said the assertion that suburban schools have “a plethora of AP classes” and minority, low-income schools do not “is just not true.” Many schools have added AP courses in the past two years.

“The bottom line is that mandating AP classes is not going to solve the problem,” he says. Asked what will, he said: better preparation, “beginning in kindergarten.”

Better preparation translates into many things: better schools, better teachers, smaller classes, well-equipped facilities and that sometimes elusive but crucial requirement, stable home lives. The idea that kids from impoverished, fractured families in unsafe, drug-ridden central cities have an even chance is ludicrous on its face. But the notion that they can’t succeed if given real opportunity in the form of better schools, textbooks, computer labs and, most important, good teachers is the worst kind of institutional race and class discrimination.

The readiness of students to embark on an AP curriculum without having been prepared throughout their school lives is the deeper issue that educators and politicians are often loathe to address. “It’s not just race, it’s class as well,” says the ACLU’s Rosenbaum. “If it were Beverly Hills High School or Pacific Palisades that had no AP courses, that situation would last for a nanosecond.”

Sigrid Bathen, an adjunct professor of journalism at Cal State Sacramento, has written extensively on education

© 2019 Sigrid Bathen

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