Education: K-12

Micah Castillo, 10, holds up a sign while his father, David Castillo, speaks at the podium during a rally to reopen Oakland public school on Feb. 28, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters
Micah Castillo, 10, holds up a sign while his father, David Castillo, speaks at the podium during a rally to reopen Oakland public schools on Feb. 28, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

Leaving aside federal money, the biggest single component by far of California’s budget is K-12 education spending. The state’s public schools educate more than 6 million kids, employ 300,000 teachers and oversee education policy across more than 1,000 districts — including L.A. Unified, the nation’s second largest. That all makes Newsom one of the country’s most consequential education policymakers.

That leadership was put to the test when in-person education shut down during much of the pandemic. The education loss was not distributed equally, worsening the achievement gap — the decades-long chasm in educational outcomes between poor kids and rich, Black students and white ones. The governor made an early priority of closing the gap at its source, by bolstering the state’s early childhood education efforts. We won’t know how well any of those efforts are working yet, but at least the state is now tracking the data.

The governor’s lucrative friendship with California’s teachers unions — the California Teacher Association was Newsom’s biggest backer in 2018 and now opposes the recall — has also provided the political backdrop for many of the most tempestuous education debates. 

What he’s done:

  • Expand early childhood education: Courtesy of the unprecedented amount of money sloshing around the state budget, the governor and Legislature hammered out a new plan that would allow every 4-year-old in California to attend transitional kindergarten by 2025
  • Okay free school meals for all: During the pandemic, the federal government gave schools permission to offer free grab-and-go breakfast and lunch to all students, suspending proof of income eligibility requirements. Universal school lunch is a policy long sought by anti-poverty and child welfare advocates. This year, Newsom signed off on a legislative proposal to keep the pandemic-era program going at a cost of $650 million a year starting in 2022-23.
  • Overhaul charter school law: In 2019, the Legislature passed and Newsom signed a package of new bills subjecting charter schools — publicly funded but independently operated — to new rules. One makes it easier for local school districts to block the creation of new charters, while another requires that charter teachers hold California teaching credentials.

What he hasn’t: 

  • Mandate ethnic studies in high school: In the fall of 2020, Newsom vetoed a bill to make ethnic studies a required course for California’s high school students, citing “uncertainty about the appropriate K-12 model curriculum.” His decision came after months of public debate over what the class would actually teach. A model curriculum from the state Board of Education was denounced for including “anti-Jewish bias” and the Los Angeles Times editorial board labeled it “jargon filled and all too PC.” This year, a new model curriculum was approved and a new bill introduced.
  • Require public schools to reopen: Public schools may be officially set to reopen for in-person classes in the fall (most of them anyway), but that isn’t because the governor forced them. As ticked-off parents, teachers’ unions and a divided Legislature did political battle this spring over when and how to reopen schools, Newsom struck a balance: offering financial incentives and urgent pleas, but no mandates.
  • Increase funding accountability: How exactly are school districts spending state money set aside for disadvantaged kids? In 2018, Newsom vowed to push for more transparency and accountability to ensure that the money was actually being spent on narrowing the achievement gap. But in 2020, he vetoed a bill that would have slapped school districts with new financial reporting requirements for the funding over concerns about “new and unnecessary procedural requirements.” This year’s budget includes a massive increase in funding for high-need schools. While it includes a new requirement that districts account for the dollars they’re awarded, it stopped short of the bill that Newsom vetoed and does not require that the money be spent on students being targeted for help.