Whitman plan — school grades, charters, merit pay — is right for us

Every four years, candidates for governor in California campaign on making our schools better. As a school principal, most recently at a Silicon Valley high school, I pay close attention to what they have to say. To be honest, I’m usually unimpressed by the politicians’ promises or don’t believe they have the independence to deliver on their promises.

This year I feel differently. Meg Whitman understands that there is no one-size-fits-all answer and has a multi-pronged plan that at its core holds all of us accountable – from elected officials to principals to classroom teachers to parents.

I recently retired as principal of Del Mar High School, which we turned from an underperforming school into a California Distinguished School. Meg Whitman believes, as I do, that all children can learn. She also believes that schools are for kids, not for status quo bureaucrats and teachers unions.

First, here are the facts. Despite spending half of our general fund on K-12 and higher education, California’s K-12 schools lag painfully close to the bottom on critical performance measures. On the NAEP tests, a national battery of exams that allow states to measure their academic performance relative to each other, California is a bottom feeder. California ranks 46th in 8th-grade math and 49th in 8th-grade reading. In science, California, innovation capital of the world and home to Silicon Valley, ranks a dismal 43rd.

The graduation rate from public high school is 50 percent higher in New York City than Los Angeles. Statewide, one of three students does not obtain a high school diploma in four years. This performance is unacceptable, and every child who leaves school without the skills needed to compete is a tiny crack in the foundation of California’s prosperity.

The next governor needs a plan to improve our schools based on proven solutions and the strong independence to push for reforms opposed by the powerful teachers unions that dominate California’s education landscape. Meg Whitman has both.

Whitman believes you cannot improve what you cannot measure, and thinks we need better tools that will kick start action early when a school is not performing well.

Her plan starts with grading every school in our state on a simple, easy-to-understand A-F scale. Florida adopted a simple A-F scale more than a decade ago and it became a cornerstone of that state’s successful reform efforts. Parents, the media, taxpayers, and elected officials have all benefitted from the simplified system, and education reformers in Florida say the grades have served as a catalyst for performance changes in Florida schools. A-F will add much needed transparency to our school system.

California schools under Whitman would also escape the dense thicket of bureaucratic rules and regulations that do not benefit children but keep an army of consultants and bureaucrats shuffling papers in an endless quest for compliance.

Whitman would dramatically simplify the state’s categorical spending programs, which tie Sacramento strings to nearly a third of our education dollars. By consolidating and dramatically reducing the categorical programs, we could free up countless dollars to pay for teachers or technology for our classrooms instead of meeting the Sacramento dictates that may have nothing to do with local education conditions. Local teachers and principals are in the best position to know what local kids need, and Whitman will empower them and give them more freedom to spend their money where it counts: in the classroom.

Charter schools will also grow under Governor Whitman, giving parents more options to find the best possible fit for their child’s educational needs. Charter schools are public schools, but they are free from some of the stifling, union-contract labor rules and other regulations that hamper our schools today. They can specialize in certain areas such as math and science, or the arts, and often can be laboratories for new teaching ideas. The competition charter schools provide to traditional public schools is also a systemwide benefit, as traditional schools no longer have a monopoly on their students and have to improve themselves to retain their kids.

Whitman would eliminate the state’s arbitrary cap on the number of charter schools. Certainly, there is no need to limit the amount of innovation in our schools. By making it easier for parents to open charter schools, and making it easier for successful charter operators to open and continue running charter schools, Whitman’s plan will ensure a vigorous charter school segment that will benefit all students.

Whitman is a huge fan of committed and dedicated teachers who put their students first. She recognizes that our best teachers are the gems of our school system. She will make it possible for them to get more money for the classroom performance that leads to outsized gains in student achievement. By rewarding performance, Whitman will make it easier for new teachers to make more money earlier in their careers, which has long been a barrier to attracting and keeping the best candidates in the field. Right now, the worst teacher in a school could be making twice as much as the best teacher in the school – and that has to stop. Merit pay will provide incentives for current teachers and will serve as an enticement for highly qualified candidates to become teachers.

No single change will revitalize our schools. But Meg Whitman’s changes, taken together, with more transparency, money into the classrooms, local control, better incentives, parental empowerment, and more competition will make the difference for our schools and put our kids on the path to success.

Jim Russell retired this past June after 31 years in education and 18 years as a high school principal—most recently serving as principal at Del Mar High School in San Jose. Under his tenure, Del Mar turned from an underperforming school to a California Distinguished School.

Note: Tomorrow in this space,  University of California at Davis Education Professor Thomas  Timar makes the case for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown’s education platform.

Author: Jim Russell

Jim Russell retired this past June after 31 years in education and 18 years as a high school principal — most recently serving as principal at Del Mar High School in San Jose. Under his tenure, Del Mar turned from an underperforming school to a California Distinguished School.

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