Basic changes are needed to fix California's ailing K-12 education system, Democrats vying to succeed Ira Ruskin in the state Assembly agreed Saturday in a public forum.
Teachers must be empowered and supported yet should have to work longer than two years to earn tenure, candidates Josh Becker, Rich Gordon and Yoriko Kishimoto said.
A state-led initiative to develop "common core standards" is a good idea so long as it does not undermine California's already stringent curriculum standards, they agreed.
The three candidates competing in the June 8 Democratic primary discussed education Saturday morning in a forum co-sponsored by the Palo Alto PTA Council, the California Charter Schools Association, the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education and the Midpeninsula Community Media Center.
Palo Alto Board of Education member Camille Townsend moderated the forum, with a panel of questioners that included Stanford University Education Professor Kenji Hakuta, former Sequoia Union High School District trustee Gordon Lewin and Ravenswood City School Board member Saree Mading.
All agreed that the decline of California's K-12 system from the top ranks 30 years ago to one that lags national averages is a pressing problem for the state.
A funding system that has centralized power in Sacramento -- combined with repeated budget cuts -- has crippled the ability of local governments and boards to offer quality schools to the communities they serve, the candidates said.
Lowering the parcel tax threshold from two-thirds to a simple majority would go a long way toward restoring local control, all said.
With caveats, the three advocated charter schools -- publicly funded schools that are freed from many state regulations in exchange for meeting agreed-upon milestones for student achievement -- as interesting "labs for innovation."
But their support for charters was qualified.
Gordon would limit the number of charter schools that can exist in any single school district and advocates a "separate funding stream" for charters.
"Charter schools should not detract from the rest of public education, they should enhance it," he said.
Citing a recent Stanford University study that found less than 20 percent of charter schools nationally do better than comparable local schools, about half do the same and 37 percent do worse, Kishimoto said those numbers are not acceptable.
"We need to do a better job of monitoring them and setting the right parameters," she said.
Becker said charters represent a very small part of the California school landscape -- only 4 percent of students in the state attend them.
"There's really no magic to charter schools," he said. "There are bad charter schools and good ones, and we need to learn from them."
Though few substantive differences among the candidates emerged in Saturday's education forum, the three have distinctively different backgrounds and experiences with public education.
Becker, a founding trustee of the University of California at Merced, also founded the San Francisco-based non-profit Full Circle Fund, which supports innovative projects in education.
Among them, he said, has been a project in conjunction with teachers' unions to examine alternative compensation models.
The older of his two children recently began school in the Las Lomitas School District.
Kishimoto, a first-generation immigrant from Japan, "began elementary school not knowing a word of English, and was fortunate enough to have a teacher spend time after school helping me with Dick and Jane."
Kishimoto said her two children went to Addison, Castilleja and Palo Alto High School.
"Many years ago as a PTA mom and site council member I saw the direct consequences of a dysfunctional state system in our classrooms, and today it's become geometrically worse," she said.
She cited work done by the non-profit Teacher Solutions in developing performance-pay systems that could be acceptable to teachers.
Gordon, a member of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, said his "life's work has been on behalf of children and youth."
Starting as a youth minister, he worked for more than 20 years in social services and founded a youth and family assistance agency in San Mateo County that included job training, housing and suicide prevention.
Since being elected 13 years ago, Gordon has worked to establish after-school homework centers for at-risk youth, provide health insurance for every child in the county up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level, and support the concept of "community schools," in which social services are provided at school sites "leaving educators free to educate."