Gubernatorial candidates discuss education goals at AEC

CSBA’s 2017 Annual Education Conference and Trade Show concluded with a powerhouse general session featuring candidates for California’s 2018 gubernatorial election.

For the first time in the association’s 86-year history, all of the leading candidates for governor participated in the panel: California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom; California State Treasurer John Chiang; California Assemblymember Travis Allen; former California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin; former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; and businessman John Cox.

California’s underinvestment in its public schools in recent decades was a major theme at the panel in San Diego. Moderated by CSBA CEO & Executive Director Vernon M. Billy, the event included opening statements by each candidate as well as responses to prepared questions from Billy.

The candidates discussed what they felt were the biggest issues for PreK-12 public education, with most citing the lack of full and fair funding as the biggest contributor to the state’s poor showing in national rankings.

“We’re at an inflection point,” said Newsom.

The panel discussed the state’s plummeting rankings in per-pupil funding — which have dropped from the top five nationally in spending per student four decades ago to the bottom quintile today — and the decline in other metrics since the 1970s. The candidates diverged on how best to fix these issues, how to ensure accountability and how large a role charter schools should play.

Chiang emphatically stated that public funds should be spent on the public good rather than going to private sector charter operators. At present, California has the most charter schools nationally, with about one in 10 students, or more than 600,000 overall, enrolled in a charter. Eastin added that the current system hurts traditional public schools as charter schools are able to “cherry-pick” desired students, leaving traditional schools with more special needs or academically at-risk students. She is supporting the NAACP’s call for a moratorium on new charter schools. Newsom, Eastin and Villaraigosa advocated for the need for universal preschool education and better prenatal care.

All of the Democratic candidates voiced their strong opposition to for-profit charter schools. Cox stated he would go after any for-profit charter entity that wastes money or is not transparent. Allen emphasized the importance of performance and accountability at schools, whether they are public, charter or for-profit charter schools, stating that students’ educational needs should be the priority, not where they are being educated.

Cox too stressed the importance of accountability. He said the private sector has a strong record of transparency and was generally open to charter schools. He also emphasized the need to change the Legislature in order to affect any change in the school system. “The [current Legislature] loves the control of the money they have that flows out of our pockets,” said Cox.

Villaraigosa largely focused on opportunity and achievement gaps for students in underserved groups. He agreed with Eastin and Newsom on the vital importance of high-quality early childhood education for these students so that they don’t begin school already behind.

The majority of the candidates did find common ground on boosting education spending — particularly through revisiting current property tax laws. Allen disagreed, arguing that all of the state’s taxes contribute to the poverty of the state. “The bottom line is this is not a funding issue,” he stated, indicating poor school performance has more to do with accountability. Chiang referred to his record of prioritizing public schools throughout his term as state treasurer as an assurance that he would continue to fight for the education community. All of the candidates agreed on improving teacher pay and the need for local control of schools.

Eastin also pointed to the need for more nurses, counselors and librarians and less reliance on standardized test scores. “You don’t fatten a hog by weighing it more often,” she said. “When we focus on our children … we make better decisions.”

Villaraigosa agreed: “Put the interest of students and kids first. Education gave me a shot. I want to give every kid that same shot.”