A panel that included former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools and StudentsFirst founder Michelle Rhee took a close look at some of the biggest problems facing education in the Golden State and also considered viable solutions to a system that ranks among the lowest in the nation.
The Wednesday panel was part of Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics’ Students Talk Back series, this one with focus on education reform in the state of California.
Unruh Institute Director Dan Schnur moderated the panel, which included USC College Democrats finance director Catherine Shieh and USC College Republicans member Haran Sivakumar, both of whom spoke about education reform from a student perspective, and Ben Austin, a former member of the California State Board of Education and founder of reform group Parent Revolution.
The discussion began with an overview of the type of policy environments that foster productive reform in education. Rhee’s organization, which is committed to reforming American public education, recently gave California an ‘F’ on its national report card. Rhee emphasized that states that are willing to cross party lines and work toward nonpartisan reform strengthen their education systems. She cited Massachusetts as one such example.
“Massachusetts usually ranks among the highest in the nation when it comes to education,” Rhee said. “StudentsFirst gave it a ‘D+’ grade because of its inefficient policy environment. Instead of rejecting the criticism, state legislators saw it as an opportunity for improvement, and have been working towards closing the state’s achievement gap.”
Throughout the discussion, however, the theme of legislative inaction remained dominant. Shieh, whose internship for a congressman included serving as a field representative to the U.S. Department of Education on his behalf, emphasized the lack of dialogue taking place between teachers and policymakers. Austin agreed that when it comes to education, power is in the wrong hands.
“This type of politics is too important to be left up to the politicians,” Austin said.
Austin was instrumental in the passage of California’s 2010 parent trigger law, which allows the parents of children in underperforming schools to bring in new teachers and leadership, or even vote to turn the school in to a charter school.
“Parent trigger is a transfer of power from the legislators who are upholding the status quo to the parents, whose chief concern is the children,” Austin said.
Sivakumar voiced the frustration of many by questioning the funding priorities of the state, which ranks fourth-highest in teacher pay but does not have the student performance data to match.
“How long can we look to increase tax revenue to fund a system that is completely broken?” Sivakumar said.
Panelists stressed the importance of the education issue, and encouraged college students to get involved in reaching the solution.