Basic changes needed to fix schools, Assembly candidates agree at Saturday forum

Contenders for Ruskin seat differ more in style than substance during weekend forum

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."

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Like this comment
Posted by Peter Caryotakis
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on May 10, 2010 at 12:46 pm

I am hoping that the candidates will do their best to rearrange the state testing so that it makes academic sense. Split the state tests and make them part of the winter and spring finals for the courses so that it matters to the kids how they do. Make the tests better by giving students five options instead of just four. Ensure that each classroom being tested has two truly different forms of the test. Since different schools will be taking the tests at different times, the testing companies will have to make many different forms with the same kinds of questions. Parents and students will not have to wait months for results. This is just the beginning of a list that would help save public schools more than a week of teaching during the year. It would be nice if the tests that students were required to take were actually related to the subject in which they were enrolled. These are simple logical ideas, that currently aren't even close to the reality. Public schools currently waste at least a week in testing that private schools do not have to do. Time is wasted in the middle of the course, before the year is completed, to review instead of reviewing just once at the end of the course. This is even worse if the test is not related to the course and concepts from previous years have to be remastered. Everyone is falling all over themselves about these tests. I'm sorry, but these tests are as naked as the politicians who think they are an honest way to test California's students. It isn't that I'm afraid to test my students, but can we do it in a way that makes some academic sense? If the politicians don't have the power to change the testing, then something has seriously gone wrong.

Like this comment
Posted by Gunther Steinberg
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on May 10, 2010 at 2:17 pm

I do not think that California K-12 school have ever been top notch.
In 1940 I skipped a grade coming from NY (With Regents Exams) to Los Angeles. Little was demanded of students. The number of students who had to take remedial English even in 1945 was appalling. Coordination between departments at UCLA was a joke - calculus and physics, which depend on each other made no attempt (1945-48). In 2008, there was an article in the UCLA magazine that they were working to make coordination between related subjects in different departments a reality. That is 60+ years later without intelligent planning.

The keys to good K-12 schooling are good teachers, parents who participate and supplement the schools efforts at home. Money thrown at schools does little, though starving them is much worse. - One problem with teachers unions is that it is very difficult to fire very poor teachers.
Perhaps most telling is the source for most teachers in the US vs that in Finland, where education scores very high. The Finnish teachers come from the top of the classes at University. Not so in the US. Teacher's pay should dependent on the quality of the teacher, not necessarily on "seniority".
When students get to university in California, they find out how deficient their education has been, how little was demanded of them.
The well educated man/woman is little valued in most businesses.

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