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Taking Back California – Part Two: Fixing Education

Convincing California’s affluent white liberals to vote Republican is not worth the effort. As noted in part one, these voters don’t feel the consequences of the policies that are killing California the way everyone else does. California’s white Democrats tend to live in higher-income neighborhoods with better schools and lower crime rates. Often, they live in their parents’ or grandparents’ house, which means they have no mortgage and minimal property taxes. The policies that are killing everyone else in California—failing education, rising crime, and a punitive cost of living—are merely theoretical to most white liberal Democrats.

Before continuing, it’s important to state what should be obvious: If a candidate engages on social issues and makes them their campaign priority in a California election, they are operating in enemy territory. When Democratic candidates attempt to stereotype Republicans as wishing to impose a regime whereby “a woman can’t even take a pill to terminate a pregnancy at six weeks,” the response should be the fact that in California it is legal to abort a fully formed, sentient 24-week-old fetus for no other reason than because the baby is unwanted. Candidates can make that the focus of the discussion, but even if they hold the moral high ground, they’re outgunned. Make the point, then return to winning issues: education, crime, and the cost of living.

There are at least three ways to fix public education in California. Let’s begin with charter schools. They are not necessarily the ultimate solution but there are hundreds of successful examples of charter schools in California. The laws are currently rigged to make it hard to open charter schools.  There are caps on how many charter schools and how many charter school students are allowed in the state. Those caps have to be lifted.

Opponents have also come up with very contrived alleged financial costs that harm districts when they have charter schools. These allegations can be easily debunked. An application for a new charter school should never be denied based on the alleged financial impact. Moreover, denied charter school applications should get an automatic appeal and there should be multiple entities capable of approving charter schools.

Here are policy recommendations that candidates who aim to protect and grow charter schools in California should advocate:

  1. Charter schools can be approved by the following entities: the state board of education, any county board of education, any school district school board, and any public or private accredited university.
  2. Charter school permits shall be granted for 10 years—this is in order to make it easier for charter schools to secure financing to build or remodel school facilities.
  3. There shall be no cap established by the state or any public agency on the number of charter schools or the number of charter school students.
  4. Virtual charter schools that support pod schooling or micro-schools shall not have their applications denied on that basis.
  5. Renewal applications for charter schools that are denied by school districts shall have the right to appeal to any county, state, or university-based authorizing entity.
  6. No charter school application or renewal shall be denied on the basis of the financial impact it will have on the school district in which it is located.

It should be noted that almost every organization that’s fighting the good fight to restore quality education, along with reducing crime and lowering the cost of living—all the big trade associations—are fighting incremental defensive battles because they can’t take the risk of really fighting for what they need. We see that in water, energy, education, construction, and almost every issue where there’s a trade association involved. They’re fighting incremental defensive battles, which means it’s up to new candidates to go on offense, come up with big solutions and promote them.

With that in mind, here’s another way to restore quality education: universally available Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). This solution preserves public funding for education but puts the choice of what school to attend in the hands of parents. ESAs are viewed by opponents as a radical solution, which is true for one overwhelmingly good reason—it will break the monopoly that traditional public schools currently wield over public education in California.

Here are policy recommendations that candidates who want to break the unionized public school monopoly in California should advocate:

  1. An education savings account shall be created for every K-12 student.
  2. These accounts shall be credited annually with each student’s pro rata share of K-12 education funding.
  3. The parents of K-12 students shall be able to direct that money to a participating school, whether it’s a public, charter, or accredited private or parochial school.
  4. The money, if unspent, shall accumulate to be used for college, vocational, or any other accredited educational expense.

The problem advocates for universal ESAs had a couple of years ago in California was that there were two versions being proposed as ballot initiatives. One was going to have means testing as a condition of participation that would phase out after a few years and the other group didn’t want that. It’s a long and sad story because there were two competing initiatives that went forward and that scared the donors away because it split the grassroots and generated controversy. As a result, nothing happened.

One of the things that conservatives in California need to accept is that they absolutely must work together. It is possible to accomplish an awful lot without considering it a compromise. Imagine how dramatic the transition would be if there had actually been a universal ESA ballot initiative for Californians to vote on and they had approved it. So what if it does or doesn’t have means testing for the first couple of years? It would have given parents more options for their children. It would have been a vast improvement in helping California students get a better education.

Education savings accounts are implemented by granting an annual credit to parents based on the amount of funding that goes into public schools. These parents can use the credit to pay tuition to the school of their choice. In 2021, this amount was about fourteen thousand dollars per student. The average cost of K-12 private school tuition in California is much less than that, barely over ten thousand dollars. There are private schools that charge a lot more but there are also much less expensive parochial schools and other types of private schools. There are now online options as well as in-person/online hybrids. There are a lot of ways to deliver quality education in California.

Finally, to restore quality education in California, candidates can propose ways to rescue public schools. They’re still going to be around, even if they’re forced to compete. Public school reform may be the first place where we see some positive changes. Here are three reforms that would go a long way towards improving the quality of teachers that California’s K-12 public school students are depending on to prepare them for adulthood. These three reforms were argued in the Vergara case, brought by nine public school students who argued that current statutes denied them their right to a quality education as guaranteed by California’s state constitution. The Vergara plaintiffs lost their case on what amounted to technicalities in appellate court in 2016. But the reforms they proposed are still needed.

Here are three reforms for candidates to promote if they want to rescue public education in California:

  1. The period necessary before tenure can be granted to a new teacher is extended from two years to five years.
  2. Criteria for layoffs shall prioritize retaining the best-performing teachers without regard to seniority.
  3. Teachers shall be hired on an “at will” basis, with the school principal granted full authority to terminate their employment at any time.

Nothing matters more in a student’s development than the quality of the teacher. Not money. Not new buildings. Not creative new curricula. If the teacher is good at their job, the students learn. These three reforms will immediately improve the quality of teachers in California’s public schools.

There are other public school reforms that candidates and activists can promote that have universal, bipartisan urgency. We have to eliminate so-called woke curricula and replace it with fundamentals. For example, we should restore classical education. Those teaching methods are working and they work with students of all abilities and incomes.

We need to reestablish classroom discipline. “Restorative justice,” which typically does not remove disruptive students from the classroom, just disrupts and intimidates the students who do want to learn. Restorative justice in California’s public schools, without necessary balance in the form of the ability to suspend or expel incorrigible students, is a recipe for anarchy. Sometimes the only way to instill respect for authority is to exercise authority. Restorative justice that isn’t ultimately backed up with tough consequences for the tough cases is the carrot without the stick.

We also need to bring back standardized aptitude tests. They are the best way to tell if our schools are working or not.

It is necessary to reemphasize that most of the organizations that support education reform in California are playing very conservative baseball. In general, they’re not willing to aggressively promote these big solutions because it’s too much of a risk. They’re worried about being targeted by the teachers’ union and that is a rational concern. So it’s up to new candidates and reenergized grassroots activists to advocate these big solutions and bring them to the voters.

California’s voters know their education system is failing. And the way the system is set up today, these failures are disproportionately affecting schools and students in low-income neighborhoods. When it comes to fixing education, Republican candidates don’t have to get dragged into polarizing battles over social issues. Their message can stick to topics that will resonate with every parent in the state. California’s public schools need competition because they’re not providing a quality education to the students who need it the most. All they have to say is, “Here are the policies that will solve the problem.”

That is a winning message.

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About Edward Ring

Edward Ring is a senior fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He is also the director of water and energy policy for the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. Ring is the author of Fixing California: Abundance, Pragmatism, Optimism (2021) and The Abundance Choice: Our Fight for More Water in California (2022).