California Can Have World-Class Schools Again


The other night I was relaxing and listening to The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour album when I heard the familiar sound of a recorder, a flute-like woodwind instrument, on the song A Fool on the Hill (hear Paul McCartney on the recorder at 1:25 – The high-pitched melodic sound of the recorder brought back memories of elementary school. Readers from my generation will remember the recorder as the public school system’s introduction to music education.

Every student was issued a basic plastic recorder that taught us how to read music by belting out old standards like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Mary Had a Little Lamb. Some students were inspired to take their musical interests to the next level by joining the school band. I tried the saxophone and quickly learned that there was no way I could ever earn a living as a musician.

I was lucky to grow up during a time when California had the best public school system in the nation. With voter approval of Proposition 13 in 1978, everything changed. The anti-tax law slashed school budgets to provide only the basics. The result has been three and a half decades of limited resources and opportunities for working-class kids. With courageous local leadership, the state’s new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) could change that.

From the 1950s to the late 70s, California’s stellar public school system was a symbol of the state’s role as an economic juggernaut during our country’s longest period of prosperity. In 1968, the year The Beatles released A Fool on the Hill, 58% of the state’s funding went to education. According to the California Department of Education website, public school funding is only “40% of the state’s General Fund for 2013-14.”

So what did working-class families get for that extra 18%? In addition to the plastic recorders, there were regular field trips, art, music, and physical education. Today, music, art, and P.E. are considered “enrichment,” not basic education, and parents have to dig deeper into their pockets for fields trips and other “extras” like pencils, paper, and crayons. With the heavy emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), we’re no longer educating our kids; we’re putting them through basic job training.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially in Silicon Valley. Our tech industry badly needs a trained pool of workers, and students need job skills that help them compete in today’s economy. But let’s call it what it is, and not call it a well-rounded education. Putting all our public school resources in the STEM basket leaves few options for students from working-class families with leadership qualities and an aptitude for written and verbal communication or the humanities and arts.

State education policy analysts estimate that the LCFF will add $2,700 per student to local school district budgets for the next five years and even more in the future. At the East Side Union High School District, that means an additional $5.5 million next year. School boards should resist the temptation to use all of the new dollars on technology and STEM-related applications.

I’ve written in previous posts that education leaders need to allocate some of those extra dollars on developing systematic and comprehensive educational equity. Resources also need to be earmarked for student readiness projects and a gradual return of arts and humanities education. Unlike affluent families that are able to fund their children’s “enrichment,” the public school system is the only place that kids from working-class families can get a shot at a well-rounded education.

California schools have been in a perpetual state of budget-cutting for over 35 years. With the annual economizing, school leaders have been on an obsessive quest to run schools like a business. Treating kids like widgets in a factory has resulted in a system that prepares students to merely take standardized tests; rather than educating them.  That’s a shame.

I’m not saying that STEM and standardized tests aren’t important elements of the school system.  I’m saying that they shouldn’t be the ONLY elements of public education. As the Information Age continues to expand, we’ll need people who can read, write, and think critically; as well as people who can program a computer and write code.

During the 1950s and 1960s, California Governor Pat Brown created and funded a well-rounded, word-class public school system.  A half-century later, his son Governor Jerry Brown has developed an education funding mechanism to provide more funding than local school districts have seen in decades.  Let’s hope our local leaders use that extra funding to inspire another era of word-class education in the Golden State.

1 thought on “California Can Have World-Class Schools Again

  1. It is important that teachers, parents, students, and community member be involved in the opportunity to get involved in the LCFF (Local Control Funding Formula). My district SJUSD is offering community meetings open to all to voice what their priorities are. I agree that equity should be a high priority.

    Here is my two cents on Computer Programming, a subset of STEM

    I teach Math and will teach AP Computer Science next year. The second high school to offer computer programming in our district. Our district plans to offer computer programming in every high school. I am recruiting now and getting the word out at my high school. It is definitely work, but worth it. (More that half signed up are Latinos, which is representative of my school.) Every day I get students to sign up. Now I need to do outreach to the get more girls to sign up, since it is traditionally a male dominated pathway. I am happy that I can teach this class and be a role model because : 1) I am Latina, 2) Female, 3) I worked in the Computer Industry as a software engineer and 4) I have a supporting community of tech experts [professors, school parents, and friends] and 5) administration and district support computer programming.

    The situation is that by 2020, 1.4 million programming jobs will need to be filled. At the rate that colleges/universities are going at, they are only able to produce 30% of the workers needed for computer science fields. (Check out and and There are over 130 career areas and 48 majors that AP Computer Science feeds into. (

    (In fact, tech companies are looking to diversify their teams with under represented groups [females and minorities] to have more solutions to their business. (By doing this, we can reach our goal of filling those 1.4 million jobs) When their is more solutions that is great for business. If the US wants to keep the edge on technology design (cause it is here in Silicon Valley, are youth need to step it up to be globally competitive. Look at an iPhone, it says on the back made in China, designed in Cupertino Califorina) US has brains of innovating ideas, we need to keep it up and maintain that edge if US wants to be competitive in the Age of Knowledge.

    In addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic, computer skills is a required and necessary skill. Not saying that everyone should be a programmer. Use computer skills to supplement your passion. Knowing computer skills (level of it will vary) depends the path you chose.

    AP Computer Science inherently offers the 21st century skills needed to be successful in the he Knowledge Age – to … need to be able to locate, assess, and represent new information quickly.

    Think about it, technology surrounds us. Just about every teenager has an electronic device. Who makes those electronic devices, programmers/software engineers. Our school, our society, our nation, and world depends on it. Newer cars have software and technology. Appliances have technology. Doctors and researchers use programming and technology (i.e. to model the brain & heart, to model diseases, to collect data to prove or disprove hypothesis. Farmers use technology to lengthen growing season, make crops, and production. People are also making apps for social issues too. Retail stores have computers to make transaction. Blogging is a way to communicate to the masses. Web/Internet Companies (i.e Amazon, track inventory with their computer systems and track customer transactions; they use the data for direct their business).

    I think I have said enough to support STEM. Music/arts and PE is just as important as STEM.
    Schools should offer the 3Rs, computer skills, art/music, and PE to all students every year.

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