Two events frame California educational crisis

Two back-to-back events last month frame California’s educational conundrum.

A Superior Court judge in Los Angeles County rebuffed efforts by state schools Supt. Tom Torlakson and other state officials to block a lawsuit alleging that California has failed to teach reading to some black and Latino children.

The suit, filed on behalf of children in Los Angeles, Stockton and Inglewood, is the latest effort by educational reform and civil rights groups to force the state to intervene in low-performing schools.

“In a cruel irony, it is only while incarcerated that some young people learn to read,” the suit, filed by Public Counsel, a public interest law firm, and Morrison & Foerster, one of the state’s top law firms, declares.

As they have in previous suits attempting to compel state intervention, Torlakson, et al, contend that the state has provided sufficient funds to local districts, so local educators should bear responsibility for properly educating kids.

Gov. Jerry Brown has repeatedly opposed attempts to impose greater state oversight on whether local schools are wisely spending money meant to benefit poor and English-learner students and close what’s been termed the “achievement gap.”

However, Judge Yvette Palazuelos wasn’t having it, ruling that “the state is ultimately responsible for public education” and allowing the suit to proceed.

Predictably, Torlakson’s spokesman, Bill Ainsworth, said “the ruling is disappointing” and implied that it will be appealed.

The second event was Torlakson’s release of high school graduation data for 2017, using a new methodology dictated by the federal government. Overall, he reported, 82.7 percent of California students who entered the ninth grade in 2013 were awarded regular diplomas four years later.

That overall rate is not horrible, but when one looks at the details, the “achievement gap” persists. Asian students, including Filipinos, graduated at a 93 percent rate, trailed by whites at 87.3 percent, but for black students, it was 73.1 percent and for Latinos, the largest single bloc of K-12 students, it was 80.3 percent.

Even more alarming, the graduation rate for English-learners was just 67.1 percent, for foster children 50.8 percent and for “socioeconomically disadvantaged” kids 78.8 percent.

Those three groups are supposedly being helped by the Brown-sponsored program of providing extra money to districts where they are concentrated.

“This is the latest in an endless series of wake-up calls to Sacramento, where inertia continues to prevent our public schools from meaningfully improving,” said Bill Lucia, president of EdVoice, an education reform group, adding, “These numbers are alarmingly low, especially for our state’s most vulnerable students.”

There’s another important aspect to the graduation report. The big urban districts, such as Los Angeles Unified and Oakland Unified, have particularly low graduation rates, 76.1 percent and 70.3 percent respectively. Both, not surprisingly, have been plagued by managerial, political and financial turmoil.

However, smaller districts, especially those in rural areas with very large numbers of Latino students, are doing much better.

Students in Fresno County’s Parlier High School, for instance, are 99.1 percent Latino but it had a 94.1 percent graduation rate. Calexico Unified, adjacent to the Mexican border in impoverished Imperial County, is 99.4 percent Latino but had an 88.6 percent graduation rate.

There’s a lesson there, and it might be that stricter accountability from Sacramento, as the lawsuit seeks, is needed to crack down on failing districts and compel them to replicate California’s small district successes.

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