Monday, November 03, 2003

Event-filled Saturday...

Every legislator produces several Select Hearings a year in the home district. These are ordinarily 9:00-12:00 workshops with a panel consisting of authorities in a specific area of concern. The goal is to look closely into some issue in the hope of exposing weaknesses in current law or finding ways of enhancing existing processes. Yesterday the hearing centered on the achievement gap as related to the new federal legislation known as "No Child Left Behind." A federal mandate, you must remember that has been imposed on the states without federal funding. The panelists included another member of the Assembly (from Southern California), principals, members of a local Board of Education, a specialist from the State Department of Education, etc. Attending as well were representative from other legislative offices, both State and Federal. It was well-attended with lots of audience participation.

The central theme turned out to be standardized testing, as usual, and appropriately so. It's clear that teachers are leaving the profession from overwork and underpay as well as their resentment at the excessive paperwork connected to the new federal mandates and of being forced to respond to the needs of test preparation instead of individualized teaching according to the needs of children.

These experiences, while they always turn out to be learning experiences for me, also have their down side. Before joining the staffs of a series of elected officials, I usually was an outspoken critic of and participant in matters of social significance. Yesterday I had many questions that -- in the past -- would have pulled me to the floor mike, but it would have been inappropriate as a staff member to do so. So, I sit in my seat and chew the insides of my cheeks, instead.

Case in point: After learning last week on one of my field trips to a local high school to observe two science classes, that in the State of California 48% of African American and Latino youngsters have dropped out of school by the tenth grade. Now there's an achievement gap! And that's a statewide figure. I can only guess that in the low income parts of my county the percentage would be higher still.

The high school I visited two weeks ago has a student population that is 65% Latino. Because of the huge drop out rate among AA kids, the black percentage (though in a community that has a 40% black population) is probably less than 25%. In the two science classes I visited, in one there were 3 AA kids. In the second (an AP -- Advanced Placement Class) there was only one young girl. When I asked the teacher why this was her answer was, "it's tracking. In middle school, the Black kids are all steered toward something called Health Sciences." This aborts all hope of college prep and results from low expectation of black students, I'm sure. I was also told that were I to visit the Special Ed classes, I would have found them to be 98% African American. Stunning!

It is also true that at the first school I spoke of, there are only 3 African American teachers on the faculty. Those few who have worked their way into teaching positions have only done so over the recent past so were "last hired." That means that, in compliance with union mandates, under succeeding budget cuts, they've been swept out for reasons of seniority. Non-white kids have little reason to see that education leads to anything in terms of life careers. There are too few role models in the field of education, the central and most influential part of their lives for their entire childhood provides no guideposts for their future.

A beginning teacher is lucky to receive $22,000/annually -- this after completing college plus advanced studies in many cases. Under the new federal mandates of "No Child Left Behind," he or she must invest in continuing education courses in order hold his or her position. A beginning prison guard with no more than a high school diploma receives a starting salary of $45,000. What's wrong with this picture? Some teachers who testified yesterday reported that -- though they've been in their classrooms for 9-10 years, under the new mandates, they are assumed to be insufficiently educated and are no longer qualified to teach. It appears that the dismantling of the entire system of public education is nearing completion. It is so sad, because I heard testimony from some dedicated and passionate educators yesterday, who are being ground up in the machinery of a hostile bureaucracy.

It's hard -- with my long view of history -- not to see a glaring connections between Brown vs. The Board of Education decision that attempted to dismantle segregation in the schools and what's happening today. It's taken over 50 years, but the Southern response to busing of children and forcing white schools has defeated the best intentions of Justice Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court. What started out in the deep south as the pulling back of support for public schools in favor of a movement that created "academies" for white kids (private) is now nationwide in scope. It has created the re-segregation of the schools. It's what vouchers are about, and the Faith Based Initiative that allows parents to collect resources from the State with which to set up "charter" schools (read that "academies"), and parochial schools, all draining the resources that used to underwrite public education.

How on earth can we have standardized testing without standardized resources? Children in the suburbs have textbooks to take home while kids in urban schools have few to use, even in class. Teachers report that they have to print out individual pages from a master copy in order to supply kids with a few pages at a time. Some textbooks in these schools were printed in 1975. In some, we have yet to land on the moon! And -- just as the pharmaceutical companies have been allowed to profiteers disgracefully on the backs of the poor and the aged, the book publishers are charging from $75/and up for a single textbook! Can anyone tell me why I can purchase a best-selling book on the web for under $30 and the purchase of textbooks for school systems that buy in huge volumes cannot be discounted? But of course, that's another powerful lobby, and, under term limits, the lobbyists have become the "Third House."

It's days like yesterday that cause a restlessness in me and an impatience with what I see as the failure of Capitalism -- based upon sheer greed. We're living at a time and under an administration that emphasizes the dark underside of our economic system. The same system that produces some unprecedented philanthropists like George Soros and, yes, Bill Gates, et al -- has given us Enron and Tom DeLay and the energy gougers and the stock market thieves, and yes, Ashcroft and his minions. Under a system of governance that supports the freedoms we so enjoy, vigilance must be constantly practiced in order to preserve the promises of our founding documents. There is always the threat of losing them, and never before in my long lifetime has that possibility seemed more immanent.

But even as I type the words, I'm buoyed by the knowledge that there is and the millions of voters who have begun to participate in the electoral process through the presidential campaigns. By our successes with the turning back (at least for the moment) of the FCC's attempts to further monopolization of the media. California's recent recall of a governor in favor of another Hollywood icon scares me a little, but I'll keep looking for positive "embers" to blow on and will let y'all know when I see them on the horizon.

Meanwhile, have a happy Sunday.