Another Education Debate That’s Not About Education

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

How can you tell when there’s a big debate in California about education? When nobody’s talking about actual education.

California education debates are always about formulas, not schools.

Take the current back and forth over Prop 98. The governor’s office has provided a budget that includes certain moneys in the Prop 98 education funding guarantee. The legislative analyst’s office says that’s not legal. The difference means hundreds of millions of dollars, or maybe more.
But that’s typical stuff. This year’s breakout non-education debate is about another formula, the one for funding public school districts and charter schools. Gov. Brown is proposing to change the formula, which is based on attendance, to include more considerations for districts with more English language learners, poor children, and foster children. Some better-off districts are already objecting.

The resulting debates, however, aren’t much about education. They are about resources and fairness – who gets what. They aren’t about outcomes – about what schools should be teaching, what students should be expected to contribute and to learn, and what standards they should be reaching.

Those are all harder questions – the answers are politically controversial, and methods of measurement are contested. It’s much easier to talk about dollars and cents – particularly since there’s a broad consensus that California schools need more money.

Talk about dollars and cents is fine, and necessary. But it can’t be the only education debate we have.

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