Education

Let’s leverage the pandemic to make our education system fairer

Credit: Andrew Reed/EdSource

Students learn during a Spanish class at Yerba Buena High School in the East Side Union High School District before the pandemic in 2019.

As I reflect on the past 10 months of leading a school district during this pandemic, I recall Rahm Emanuel famously quipping when he was chief of staff for President Obama: “You never want to let a serious crisis go to waste. . . . It’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”

We can’t allow the crisis of the pandemic to go to waste.

If Gov. Newsom and the Legislature were willing to suspend certain parts of the state education code and provide the extra resources to meet the challenges of distance learning during the pandemic, then why not take the same approach to incorporate a much-needed new paradigm of teaching and learning after the pandemic?

California’s public education system is failing too many of our young people. To change what the system produces, we must change the system. We must call on our legislators to make key changes to the state education code in the areas of finance, instructional minutes and teacher credentialing.

We need changes in how public schools are funded and how we prepare candidates to become teachers. School districts should have more flexibility so that the lessons learned and the best practices developed during the pandemic can be incorporated to better serve our students.

State funding of public schools is tied to how the school day is scheduled. Restructuring the school day, week and year to allow a schedule for relationships between adults and students to take place will better serve the community.

Changing state law to allow for scheduling flexibility each school day and a longer school year would address funding and learning concerns. Under current state law, the required 64,800 annual high school instructional minutes are organized in 55-minute class periods, a six-period day and 180 instructional days. To be creative, each of the nearly 1,000 school districts in the state would have to negotiate schedule changes locally.

But in response to the pandemic, in our San Jose high school district, our schedule during distance learning provides opportunities for teachers to go deeper into their lessons and allows students to demonstrate their learning in nontraditional ways.

Our schedule also provides built-in tutorial and advisory periods and allows for ongoing professional development. It includes synchronous (live class lessons) and asynchronous (students learn at their own pace) time for teaching and learning.

This schedule would not have been allowed pre-pandemic.

That’s because state law requires a specific amount of daily, synchronous instruction and 180 instructional days. We must change the law so asynchronous instruction counts toward a district’s overall instructional minutes and therefore how much state funding they receive. Saturday and evening instruction should count toward meeting the requirements.

The Legislature should also revamp how school districts are funded. California uses a two-tiered funding model for K-12 schools. Of California’s 942 school districts, between 125 and 150 a year are funded through local property taxes rather than by the state. As a result of formulas established decades ago, these districts are allowed to keep their property taxes because the amount is larger than what they would get from the state. They tend to be affluent districts, but not all are. These districts can receive as much as $10,000 per pupil a year more.

I don’t advocate taking resources from these districts. Rather, all districts should be funded at this higher level, which means the state must provide far more funding for all districts.

We must also change how we prepare candidates to be teachers. Today, elementary school teachers must be “Jacks of all trades,” that is, they must teach all subjects. We have decades of data to show that students begin to fall behind in math in grades 4 and 5. We need teachers who specialize in teaching math and science in those critical grades. That would require the Legislature to change the education code to require single-subject credentials to teach math and science in those grades and to authorize funding to cover the additional cost. This will provide students the proper foundation for success.

These are just some examples to how changes to the Education Code would empower California schools to better serve their students.

Our students should have time to explore areas that interest them and to double down in areas where they thrive. It is important they have time and space to build community, address social and racial injustice issues, support their mental health needs and truly develop strategic thinking skills for full participation in their local communities and the global society.

Let’s not waste this crisis.

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Chris D. Funk is superintendent of East Side Union High School District in San Jose.

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