School Beat: California’s Master Plan for Education

by Lisa Schiff on February 7, 2008

Tuesday’s elections brought much general excitement but no movement in particular for public education. The Democratic candidates have expressed some criticism of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), specifically in regards to the relentless testing, but it certainly isn’t one of the major topics of the campaign debates. McCain, for the moment the Republican front-runner, uses his limited website space on education to push vouchers in a not so veiled way. The war and the economy are the pressing, urgent issues of this electoral cycle, and education, as it often is, is a secondary matter.

This lack of attention from the Democrats, and the type of attention from the Republicans, is unfortunate given the great need that our education system has right now for meaningful leadership, both programmatically and financially. Instead, we must rely on ourselves, and turn to our local education leaders and our own community of public education advocates to advance the interests of our children and schools. Unlike many of the elected officials at the highest levels, our understanding and goals are informed by theory and experience, not slogans and misperceptions.

In thinking about how to proceed in the context of a governor cutting funds and state and federal leaders unable or unwilling to approach education legislation in a constructive manner, it is useful to consider the framework in which we are operating. Apart from NCLB, an essential piece of work is California’s Master Plan for Education, originally created as the Master Plan for Higher Education in 1960 and updated with recommendations most recently in 2002 with extensive sections on preK-12 education.

The Master Plan for Education in theory provides the goals and funding architecture for the educational priorities from pre-school to post-secondary education (and to some degree adult education), within the state of California. At the time when it was originally created it represented a bold step in the provision of secondary education to the state, articulating the division of educational services across the community college, State University and University of California systems. The goal was to ensure expanded access to these opportunities in light of the growing need and the expected benefit to the state. Those expectations of benefits to California at large have been more than met, with the demand on all of the above branches of the public higher education system continuing to increase.

The latest set of recommendations to the Master Plan formally recognize the dependencies between the preK-12 and secondary educational system. With the advantage of several years of hindsight, it also reads like a tactical response to the pressures from the federal government, subtly engaging in rhetorical jousts with NCLB’s singular focus on standardized testing. A more integrated plan for education in California that doesn’t completely cave into the short-sightedness of the federal government is essential, but there are mixed messages within this document.

The essential and laudable goals of the plan are: “to provide every family with the information, resources, services, involvement, and support it needs to give every child the best possible start in life and in school; and to provide every public school, college, and university with the resources and authority necessary to ensure that all students receive a rigorous, quality education that prepares them to become a self-initiating, self-sustaining learner for the rest of their lives.” (Master Plan 2002, p.1)

The first section of the 2002 Plan discusses access to quality education, particularly focusing on K-12 and contains much of what all public school advocates organize and call for every day. Consider for example, Recommendation 2, which addresses the background issues of social inequality that affect schools but go beyond their boundaries: “The State should support the effective coordination of health and social services delivery for all children, beginning with services that meet young children’s developmental needs, at sites that are conveniently accessible to families.” (Master Plan 2002, p. 19)

Or Recommendation 6.6, which acknowledges the importance of realistic recruitment and retention plans for teaching staff: “The State should provide additional resources to attract and retain the finest educators for schools serving high concentrations of students living in poverty.” (Master Plan 2002, p. 29)

The Plan is also refreshing in its response to high-stakes testing. While it focuses on “accountability,” it criticizes high-stakes testing and references more complex, informative modes of evaluating student progress and teaching efficacy for individual students. It also discusses the need to hold not only students, teachers and principals accountable, but the need to enable the public to hold the state itself accountable for providing the funding and other resources required to meet the demands of the Master Plan.

Along with these strengths are some important weaknesses. First is a continued reliance on categorical programs—targeted funds for targeted programs, which we have painfully learned are cumbersome to implement, frequently make it difficult or impossible to achieve their goals and result in fewer discretionary funds that are essential for schools to function. Similarly, there is an incredible level of detail about programs and how they should be implemented, details that seem inappropriate and likely to impede the ability of districts to respond to changes in their communities.

The most alarming issue though is the repeated support for the division of power between the Governor’s Secretary of Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction. The Plan advocates for the Governor’s appointee to hold authority, particularly budget authority, over the entire system (Recommendation 26, p. 199), whereas the Superintendent, who is elected, should only be responsible for performance outcomes, without having any control over resources. In other words, the Superintendent must produce expected results without the ability to decide how funding should be distributed to support those outcomes. Further, the electorate, particularly the public education supporters who are likely to be the ones paying the most attention, will have no direct ability to decide who is in charge of the education funds.

This separation of power seems to be a fatal flaw in a plan that has much to recommend it. The divorcing of funding from program, of resources from results, is a pattern that public schools are all too familiar with by now. As we advance in our movement to build and strengthen our schools, this fissure should not be forgotten. Not only do we need sufficient funding for our children’s education, but we need real control of those resources too.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.

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