|Mayor Anthony Villagairosa and family, sans his mistress.|
Remarks as Prepared for Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa - PPIC "California's Future" Conference - Education Keynote, December 7, 2010
Thank you for that kind introduction. It is a true honor to address such an esteemed audience. I would like to thank the Public Policy Institute of California for organizing this conference and bringing us together. And I would like to congratulate Mark Baldassre and the entire staff at PPIC for the thoughtful and influential work they continue to produce every year.
It is more than fitting that we begin the day on the topic of education reform, because there are few issues more pressing than ensuring that all Californians have equal access to a world-class education. When most of us went to school in the 1950s and 1960s, we were blessed that California public schools were synonymous with excellence. We were the gold standard, a national model that complemented our State's image as a land of opportunity.
But somewhere along the way, the schools in which we invested so much time, thought, and capital, slowly began to crumble - figuratively and literally - and we were left with what we have today:
Schools that consistently rank in the bottom third among all states. Schools that spend, on average, $2,400 less per pupil than most other states. Schools that are, in too many instances, more segregated than they were in the 1950s. And schools that are viewed as so ineffective and irrelevant, that one in every four students drops out, believing their time would be better spent elsewhere.
Education may be the most important issue of our time. It is an economic issue, it is a civil rights issue, and it is the foundation for the common values that bind us as Americans: the belief in a democratic and free society. A quality education should not hinge on your ZIP code, or your parents' tax bracket, or the color of your skin. Our public schools should be the true embodiment of the American Dream, a place where people are judged on achievement and rewarded on merit.
But when you consider that California's so-called "drop-out factories" are comprised of predominately Latino and African American students, one has to ask whether we are actively creating a second class of citizens among a demographic that now represents the majority of our students.
Even within our storied UC and Cal State systems, long heralded for their excellence and diversity, we have made few gains and in some cases, lost ground over the past 25 years. In 1989, African-American students represented over 5% of the student body at our UC schools. Today, they are just 3%. And even though Latinos represent nearly 40% of the population of California, and over 50% of our public school population, they make up just 20% of our UC students. This is the stark reality.
Sadly, I'm not telling you anything you don't already know to be true. The question isn't whether we have reached a crisis point or arrived at a critical crossroads, the question we must ask ourselves today is:
What is stopping us from changing direction?
Why, for so long, have we allowed denial and indifference to defeat action? I do not raise this question lightly, and I do not come to my conclusion from a lack of experience. I was a legislative advocate for the California Teachers Association, and I was a union organizer for United Teachers of Los Angeles. From the time I entered the California State Assembly and became Speaker, to my tenure as Mayor of Los Angeles, I have fought to fund and reform California's public schools.
Over the past five years, while partnering with students, parents and non-profits, business groups, higher education, charter organizations, school district leadership, elected board members and teachers, there has been one, unwavering roadblock to reform: UTLA union leadership.
While not the biggest problem facing our schools, they have consistently been the most powerful defenders of the status quo. I do not say this because of any animus towards unions. I deeply believe that teachers' unions can and must be part of our efforts to transform our schools. Regrettably, they have yet to join us as we have forged ahead with a reform agenda.
By partnering with the Los Angeles School Board, we created the Public School Choice program that is now allowing non-profits, charters, teacher groups - anyone with a proven track record of success - to compete to run new or failing schools. By 2012, over 50 low-performing schools will be under new leadership, with a new chance for success.
UTLA leadership fought against this reform.
Partnering with the School Board and the charter school community, we doubled the number of charter schools in an effort to raise our test scores and alleviate overcrowding.
Partnering with the Parent Revolution, we successfully passed legislation here in Sacramento, empowering communities to shut down, reopen or takeover a failing school if a simple majority of parents petition to do so.
Working with LA Unified, I founded the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools to turn-around 21 of the lowest-performing schools.
And partnering with civil rights organizations and the ACLU, we filed a lawsuit to take a stand against the practice of seniority-based layoffs, which were disproportionately affecting our poorest schools and students of color.
At every step of the way, when Los Angeles was coming together to effect real change in our public schools, UTLA was there to fight against the change and slow the pace of reform.
Now let me pause to underscore the point once again that I come from an organizing background. I vociferously believe in the fundamental right for a worker to organize, to have a voice and a seat at the bargaining table. But union leaders need to take notice that it is their friends, the very people who have supported them and the people whom they have supported, who are carrying the torch of education reform and crying out for the unions to join them.
It is no longer acceptable for those who care about our children and our teachers to remain the loudest opponent and the largest obstacle to creating quality schools where teachers are supported, honored, and paid what they are worth, and where students are engaged and test scores are rising.
So as California welcomes a new leadership team to the statehouse, I call on the teachers' unions to join the reform team again; to join students and parents, business and non-profits groups, charter organizations, higher education, and school district leadership; join us all at the reform table, ready with ideas, excited for change, and willing to say "yes!"
There is no better way to once again make our State the promoter of progressive change than by tackling two of the biggest problems facing our public schools: Our unsound, unstable and insufficient school finance system and our lack of a meaningful evaluation system to ensure an effective teacher in every classroom.
Now, it seems like every tired discussion on education reform starts with money, but when California has gone from a frontrunner in per pupil spending to 47th in the Nation, and when we spend less per pupil than each of the largest 10 states in this country, and when we spend nearly $6,000 less per student than New York, it is hard NOT to talk about money. As I have said over and over again, California taxpayers will never increase their investment in education until they are convinced they will see a return on their money.
So while the funding we provide to our schools is not nearly enough to meet our educational goals, how we send that funding to our local districts is so complex and restrictive, it is creating gross inequalities in our classrooms. Put simply, the way California funds its schools is both inadequate and inequitable.
The reason? Funds are not distributed by need, but instead by opaque and antiquated formulas that don't really tell us who is getting the money or how much they are getting.
The result? It's impossible for us to track exactly why a school in Watts receives less money than a school in Brentwood. Schools in the most challenged neighborhoods, with the greatest need, is where we should be investing our education dollars. And we can change this. We can guarantee no school - and no child - is pitted against one another, and no school district receives less funding than it is receiving now.
This change starts with making structural reforms to our school financing system. By increasing transparency, flexibility, and equity, we can create a system where each local school district receives a base level of funding for every child, plus additional funding for students with special or high needs. Principals would be given more flexibility on how to spend these dollars. And, to protect all students and local districts, we could set targets for base funding now and phase-in the new financing system over time. This way, no district would have to fear losing precious dollars.
Now is the time to make this change. These lean budget years provide a critical window of opportunity to create a new framework for school financing, so when new money does become available, we have a system that is transparent, coherent, and responsive to student needs.
But even when we are finally - and fairly - funding our schools, these reforms won't be complete unless we ensure a quality teacher in every classroom. Study after study has shown that the single most important factor to a child's academic success is a quality teacher. But we don't need studies to tell us this. Which one of us doesn't to this day hold a special teacher dear in our heart? Which one of us can't look back and remember that one teacher who turned it around for us? Unfortunately, we do precious little to support and reward these great teachers, and, conversely, even less to hold accountable the unsuccessful ones.
Let me give you a snapshot of the current system: Nearly every new teacher-over 97%-is automatically tenured after two years. Let me ask you this: If the tables were turned and they were giving out "A's" to nearly every student, wouldn't an "A" lose its meaning?
Current tenure and evaluation practices aren't just meaningless for parents and districts, they are equally meaningless for the dedicated teachers seeking to grow and improve. My own school district in Los Angeles put together the Teacher Effectiveness Task Force chaired Dr. Ted Mitchell, who joins us today.
The findings told us that evaluations are one-dimensional and do very little to improve teacher quality or increase learning in the classroom. This evaluation system is serving no one.
California has the opportunity to adopt a new system, one that is meaningful and based on a clear definition of teacher and school leader effectiveness. And we must start by making data on student performance - and student growth- a key indicator. To be meaningful, evaluations must include multiple measurements: Student growth over time, in-class observations, and reviews by students and parents, supervisors and peers.
With a rigorous and relevant system, new and struggling teachers or administrators would be given the support and training they need to improve and succeed, and quality teachers and principals would be honored and rewarded.
And once we have a meaningful system in place, we cannot continue to automatically guarantee lifetime employment to all teachers, nor can we make decisions about assignments, transfers and layoffs solely on the basis of seniority. Tenure and seniority must be reformed or we will be left with only one option: eliminating it entirely.
When it comes to important decisions regarding where teachers are placed, we must factor in performance and create career ladders for our most successful teachers. When it comes to layoffs, we must ensure that they are not disproportionately affecting our most challenged schools. And when it comes to tenure, principals should have to proactively affirm that a new teacher is deserving.
Tenure should be a meaningful accomplishment, not an arbitrary mile-marker. To give districts and principals more time to make an informed decision about this permanency, we should increase the observation time to four years. Two years is simply not enough time for new teachers to meet performance standards.
Finally, we must amend the Education Code to streamline the dismissal process. For example, those who are consistently unsuccessful in the classroom should be dismissed, period. This is not just in the best interest of our students, it is in the best interest of the excellent teachers who are dedicated to their profession. No more years of waiting for a case, months-long hearings, or endless appeals. That is in nobody's best interest.
This isn't just about doing away with the "Dance of the Lemons," it is about chopping down the trees that grow bad lemons. It is about changing an entire system, a system that fails to fund our schools adequately, that doesn't recognize when students achieve, and doesn't value committed, quality teachers.
It is time we start honoring excellence. It is time we recognize that we have reached that critical crossroads. If anyone can turn indifference into action, it is California. We must all join forces again, ready with ideas, excited for change, and willing to say "yes!"
Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity today.