Governor Brown, what are you thinking? Your proposal, to end the mandate that requires a second year of science for high school graduation, as a way to fix a dysfunctional budget process, makes absolutely no sense.
Since 1986 every student who graduated from high school in California has been required to take and pass one year of life science and one year of physical science. The second year of science requirement was added when it became obvious that a literate citizenry needed to know more about the science and technology that drives their everyday world than a one-year general science class could provide.
What has changed? Is it less important now, in 2012, for citizens of California to have the minimum amount of science necessary for access to careers or colleges after high school? The economy of California is heavily dependent on the technology that results from the work of scientists and researchers, and California citizens, the consumers of that technology, must have a solid understanding of its origins, is applications, and its limitations to make sound decisions for the future. Decreasing the number of years of science required in high school for graduation is a step in the wrong direction.
Throughout all of the rhetoric surrounding this proposal, your office and the Department of Finance have argued that removal of the mandate will not affect the quality of education our students receive. They argue that the California State University and the University of California will still require two years of lab science as a minimum requirement for admission. This is likely true, but this fact does not address the large number of students who don’t see four-year colleges in their future plans. For those students, a reduction in the number of years of required science could mean a workforce that is even less prepared than they are now. Removal of the mandate could easily result in an underprepared workforce for California. In a time when employers argue that it is difficult to find qualified workers, anything that reduces worker preparation should be avoided.
Don’t trust the predictions
Supporters of your proposal argue that graduation requirements are still the responsibility of the local school districts and that districts would never reduce graduation requirements. I would caution that as schools face declining budgets and continued pressure to perform on standardized tests, districts may find themselves forced to make decisions that seem unconscionable today.
Teaching science is not cheap. The Department of Finance estimates that the cost of the second year of science requirement is $250 million per year. If we accept this amount, it should not be a stretch to see that a district that has to cut millions of dollars from its annual budget will see elimination of a non-mandated cost as an easy way to maintain solvency. This possibility is further compounded by the realization that school districts have not been reimbursed at this level for years. Essentially, they are fulfilling this mandate from their general funding, since no additional support has been provided by the state.
Furthermore, districts that are struggling to meet their measures of Annual Yearly Progress (AYP), as called for in the No Child Left Behind law, will see this as an opportunity to place more emphasis on the subject areas that contribute the most to scores – mathematics and language arts – and eliminate a year of science. Evidence of schools’ willingness to do this can be seen every day in elementary schools throughout California. If a subject is not tested, it is often not taught.
The proposed elimination of the second year of science as a graduation requirement is a quick answer to a much bigger problem. Schools have, in good faith, met this two-year mandate for 26 years with little or no compensation from the state. Schools are owed almost $2.5 billion for doing a job that is required of them that has not been supported.
Yes, eliminating the mandate will stop the continued accumulation of the debt owed to the schools, but it will not fix the dysfunctional budgeting process. It will result in a further eroding of the quality of the workforce that is so critical to the financial recovery of California. It sends the message that science, as a core curriculum area, is not valued. It is the first step down a slippery slope that will result in fewer students entering college with aspirations in the fields of science and technology, and in an underprepared workforce. It will lead to a wider gap of college admission rates between students who traditionally attend a four-year college and students in underserved populations.
Governor Brown, I ask that you drop this proposal and find other ways to fix the budget problem. This problem was not created by the students or the schools in California, and you should not place the burden of fixing it on them.
Rick Pomeroy is science education lecturer/supervisor in the School of Education, University of California, Davis and is president of the California Science Teachers Association.