K-12 Schools Key to East Bay’s Economic Future

Wendy Lack
Board member, Contra Costa Taxpayers Association

Last month Contra Costa County Supervisors were briefed on the region’s future job outlook by representatives from the Contra Costa Community College Districtthe county’s Workforce Development Board and the Contra Costa Council. These groups work with leaders from local industry to develop job training programs to meet employer needs. The discussion focused on job growth in the context of developing Contra Costa’s 75 miles of northern shoreline and its harbors between Richmond and Oakley.

Presenters acknowledged that technology and global competition are driving dramatic workforce changes. The current shortage of local, skilled workers is expected to grow in this dynamic environment. Over the next five years most East Bay job growth will be driven by jobs in the professional, scientific and technical areas, including fields such as computer systems, scientific research, engineering, management consulting, architecture, law and accounting. In addition, employment in manufacturing, which currently represents over 25% of East Bay jobs, is expected to remain strong.

To meet the region’s long-term economic growth, job training agencies and community colleges in Contra Costa, Alameda and Solano counties are pursuing a $14.9 million initiative to “stimulate transformation of the regional community colleges and East Bay workforce system.” This program is designed to improve coordination of the region’s career training programs by integrating efforts of high schools, community colleges, CSU East Bay, UC Berkeley, state and local job training agencies, trade associations and employers. Over three years it is anticipated that 2,000 individuals will be trained for advanced-level jobs in manufacturing, transportation/logistics and engineering.

However this grand vision ignores the proverbial elephant in the room: chronic underperformance of the region’s K-12 schools. Local community colleges affirm their role has changed from teaching college-level courses to remediating high school graduates unable to read and write. “Some students don’t know the fundamentals of constructing a sentence,” Contra Costa Community College District chancellor Helen Benjamin recently told the Contra Costa Times.

Presenters at the briefing mentioned a January 28, 2013 Contra Costa Times column about the growing numbers of California high school graduates ill-prepared for the workplace or college. However, they failed to acknowledge the reality that an East Bay “regional career training system” cannot succeed without addressing the root cause of the region’s worker shortage: K-12 schools whose performance is ranked among the nation’s worst, with fewer than 25% of students proficient in English and math.

Given the growing sophistication of work in our technology-intensive world, fixing the state’s broken K-12 educational system is an increasingly urgent need. Throwing more money at a failed system only perpetuates the status quo.

New approaches are needed that focus on what works for people rather than what benefits institutions.  Administrators and principals must overcome public education’s risk-averse “culture of can’t” and master the policy and legal aspects in which schools function.

Until K-12 academic performance improves dramatically, potential for economic development cannot be realized.  And no amount of adult education courses, student remediation and job training programs can change that fact.

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