PTA is mobilizing for $10 billion fundraiser: Our Children, Our Future

In towns and cities throughout California, something quite remarkable is happening. Parents and family members are organizing for the largest PTA fundraiser ever.

They are not selling gift wrap or candy or washing cars. They are organizing to support the Our Children, Our Future education initiative for the November ballot. This measure will raise $10 billion to $11 billion each year to restore education programs and services their children desperately need now. Critical funding would be provided on a per-student basis to every school site in the state. That’s every student, every school.

In the coming weeks, if your neighbor or friend or a parent from your local school comes up to you and asks “Will you sign our petition to support funding for our schools?” it is likely to be a PTA volunteer speaking up for children.

The stakes are high. According to State Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson: “The deep cuts made to school funding – and looming uncertainties about the future – are driving school districts to the brink of insolvency. Plain and simple, our schools need new revenues to get back on solid financial ground.”

During the past several weeks, the PTA has helped train parents to get beyond mad and get organized. From San Diego to Orange County to the Bay Area to Sacramento and many points in between, PTA volunteers now have petitions in hand and are seeking signatures to support the Our Children, Our Future education initiative.

Why? Because parents have been seeing something really scary happening in California.

Per-pupil funding in California is 47th in the nation, lagging behind the national average by $2,580 – more than at any time in the past 40 years. Our state ranks dead last in class sizes – 50th out of 50 states – with the largest class sizes in the nation.

An entire generation of children is being denied the education they need to succeed in the workforce and succeed in life. On behalf of all these children, California State PTA decided we couldn’t wait any longer for the political experts in Sacramento to come up with a plan that truly puts children first.

Instead, we decided to help write the plan – the Our Children, Our Future education initiative – to make sure California is serving its most important constituency: our children and youth.

Working with the nonprofit Advancement Project, the PTA is supporting this initiative because it will start to restore – right now – the programs and services that have been cut out of our local schools.

As I travel the state, I see parents and the public embracing this initiative. The more they learn about it, the more they like the approach because they’re tired of fighting  just to prevent deeper budget cuts. They want to take positive action to raise additional funding that will transform their local schools.

The initiative proposes to generate this new funding through a progressive, sliding-scale income tax increase that asks the wealthiest citizens to contribute the most. But Our Children, Our Future is not merely a “tax initiative” in the way that other proposals are. It is a bolder effort to begin reversing years of chronic underfunding and to truly transform our public schools.

Parents want their children to have a complete education – not shorter instructional time and larger classes, not the elimination of the arts and librarians, not schools that fail to provide counselors and physical education.

The PTA plan is pretty simple and easy to understand:

  • Raise $10 billion to $11 billion dollars each year and put it in a trust fund;
  • Target money for early childhood education and educational programs and services for K-12 schools;
  • Send the money to every local school on a per-pupil basis;
  • Give parents and the school community input on how the money is spent;
  • Provide a clear list of what the money can be used for;
  • Give the voters a chance to see how it works, and let them decide if they would like it to continue after 12 years.

This approach is significantly different from any other ballot option.

It is the only initiative that targets money exclusively for early childhood education and K-12 schools. In each of the first four years, it also pays education bond debt-service costs for pre-kindergarten through university school facilities. (Payment of the bond debt-service costs starting in its first full fiscal year will provide the state General Fund savings of approximately $3 billion per year.)

If I were writing a movie script the plot might be:

“Can PTA moms and dads out-hustle professional organizers and politicians in a campaign about the future of their children?”

We are committed to making this a story of triumph because that’s what this is all about –  our children and our future.

Carol Kocivar of San Francisco is president of the California State PTA. The California State PTA has nearly 1 million members volunteering on behalf of public schools, children, and families. The PTA also advocates at national, state, and local levels for education and family issues. For information: www.capta.org. You can find more information about the Our Children, Our Future initiative at www.ourchildrenourfuture2012.com

Financially strained districts on rise

Nearly a third of California students attend school in a district facing dire financial circumstances. A report released yesterday by the State Department of Education shows that 127 of California’s 1,037 school districts are now designated as either in negative or qualified budget territory. And that’s before taking the January trigger cuts into account.

2011-12 California school districts in financial distress. (Source: Calif. Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge.
2011-12 California school districts in financial distress. (Source: Calif. Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge.

Seven districts in the First Interim Status Report for 2011-12 received a negative certification, meaning they might not have enough money to get through the rest of this academic year or the next one. They include Vallejo City Unified, which was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2004 and is still paying off a $60 million bailout loan from the state.

Another 120 districts – 17 more than last year – landed in qualified status. They range from Los Angeles Unified, the largest district in the state, to La Grange Elementary School District in rural Stanislaus county, with 7 students. These districts will get through this year, but may not be able to pay their bills in the next two years.

“The financial emergency facing our schools remains both wide and deep,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson in a written statement. “The deep cuts made to school funding – and looming uncertainties about the future – are driving school districts to the brink of insolvency.”

For a second straight year school districts are planning their budgets without knowing whether they’ll have to take another mid-year cut. If voters reject all of the tax increase measures on the November ballot, funding will fall by about $450 per student next year. In the meantime, the March 15 deadline for preliminary layoff notices to teachers is three weeks away.

“I don’t think this list accurately reflects how serious the situation is,” said Michael Hulsizer, head of governmental affairs for the Kern County Office of Education. “Imagine one of these districts facing a $450 per student cut on top of where they are; they have no place to go other than to make cuts right now.”

That’s what Superintendent Kent Taylor is working on in Southern Kern Unified School District. A year ago the district was on the negative list, facing insolvency. This year, after renegotiating all its vendor contracts and getting the unions to accept some furlough days and reduced medical coverage, the district has moved into the positive zone. Taylor intends to keep it there, and that means getting into the weeds himself, looking for any place to save money.

2010-11 California School Districts in financial distress.  (Source: Calif. Dept. of Education) Click to enlarge.
2010-11 California School Districts in financial distress. (Source: Calif. Dept. of Education) Click to enlarge.

“Superintendents nowadays, if they want their districts to survive, have to spend a lot of time on business. Half my day is spent on finances, and that’s how we’re going to stay strategically planned for the future.”

Even the best plans can’t compete with the recession. In San Bernardino County, where the unemployment rate is nearly 12 percent, a quarter of the school districts are on the qualified list. Riverside County, with 12.5 percent unemployment, has 40 percent of its districts in qualified status. But it’s the school districts around the state capital that are reeling the most. More than 95 percent of students in Sacramento County attend one of the eight school districts that ended up with qualified certification.

It falls to the county offices of education to monitor the districts and try to help them get back on sound footing. “I send them a letter which gives them the steps we think they need to take,” explained Dave Gordon, superintendent of the County Office of Education. “Our role of fiscal oversight is not to tell them what to cut; our role is to tell them what it will take to maintain their solvency.”

One of the most dramatic downturns in the county is in Elk Grove Unified, where Gordon spent nearly a decade as superintendent. During his tenure, Elk Grove was one of the fastest growing districts in the state; they couldn’t build schools fast enough. Since then, the housing market tanked, growth stopped, the district’s enrollment fell, and, of course, the state made huge cuts in education.

Gordon said one of the biggest problems is the state deferrals that push billions of dollars in Proposition 98 funding into the following fiscal year. The state shortfall gets erased that way, but districts are left scrambling for cash to cover their expenses, and as they run out of reserves they turn to loans, often with high interest rates.

That’s why there’s so much riding on the governor’s tax initiative. Gov. Brown said the first thing he’d do with the additional funds for education would be to start to pay down the deferrals.

County offices are advising districts to again prepare for the worst, but “worse is a matter of degree nowadays,” said Gordon. “It’s all a question of how much you’re willing to prepare for the sort of doomsday cuts. What we keep saying to people is that hope is not a strategy.”

Munger-PTA initiative hits the streets

Unfazed by disparagement from Gov. Brown’s politicos, civil rights attorney Molly Munger and her chief ally, the state PTA, launched a drive Thursday to collect signatures for the November ballot for a $10 billion tax initiative to benefit K-12 and early childhood education.

“We would not do signatures if we did not feel confident,” Addisu Demissie, manager for the Our Children, Our Future Education Initiative campaign, said in a teleconference. “We know we are on the right track and are moving forward.” Unless someone blinks, the Munger-PTA initiative could vie on the ballot with the governor’s temporary tax initiative and perhaps a third plan, a tax on the income of millionaires, pushed by the California Federation of Teachers with help from the California Nurses Association.

Common wisdom in Sacramento is that multiple tax initiatives would doom all to fail, but Munger, the initiative’s creator and primary financier, and Demissie weren’t buying that talk. They can also count on the energy, time, and “pent-up frustration” of PTA parents, hundreds of whom have been trained in the past several weeks to collect signatures and make a pitch, said California PTA president Carol Kocivar. It’s unusual for the state PTA to put its weight behind an initiative so squarely and so early.

Repeated polling, Munger said, has shown that voters want to invest in schools. The initiative is “popular for good reason.” The campaign cites a USC Dornsife College poll which found that two-thirds of registered voters would pay more taxes to improve school funding, if they are confident the money would be spent in their own communities.

That’s not what Brown’s chief political aid has been saying. Last weekend, Steve Glazer let out a memo from Brown pollster Jim Moore, who concluded from a survey of 500 voters that “the Munger tax measure has virtually no chance of passage” and that “if multiple tax measures are on the ballot at the same time, voters will naturally choose one measure over another, which will make it extremely difficult for any one measure to receive over 50% of the vote.” Moore said that the Our Children, Our Future initiative came in last among the three tax proposals, with only 31 percent support. Munger dismissed the release of the poll, which she said was “an effort to fog the lens of the press.”

Brown is proposing to rescue the general fund with between $5.5 billion and $7 billion by raising the sales tax a half-cent and the income tax on families earning more than $250,00 through 2016. Between 40 percent and 50 percent would go to K-12 schools and community colleges.

The CFT’s permanent tax – 3 percentage points on those earning $1 million, 5 percent on those earning $2 million or more – would raise up to $6 billion, with 60 percent going to K-12 and higher education, and 40 percent to counties to shore up roads and social services.

Our Children, Our Future would raise the most money: $10 billion per year (and growing over its 12-year life), with nearly all dedicated to K-12 schools (85 percent), and the rest to early childhood education. The exception would be during the first four years, when, in a nod to the current state budget deficit, 30 percent (more than $3 billion) would go to pay off school construction bonds. That would free up money for non-education purposes in the General Fund.

The education money would go into a trust fund, outside of Proposition 98 and the Legislature’s control, distributed to schools on a per-pupil basis, with extra dollars to low-income children. (You can calculate how much would go to every school in the state using a calculator here.) None of the money can be used to increase salaries and benefits, and no more than 1 percent for administration. (You can’t accuse Munger of currying favor of teachers unions or the Association of California School Administrators.)

Munger said California now lags $2,580 behind the national average in per-student spending, the biggest gap in 40 years; the initiative would give schools a jolt of resources they need.

It would do so by raising the income tax 1 percent. Since the income tax is progressive, that would translate to, AFTER deductions:

  • 0.40 percent or $11 for a couple earning $17,500;
  • 1.10 percent or $428 for a couple earning 75,000;
  • 1.80 percent or $3,266 for a couple earning $250,000;
  • 2.00 percent or $27,266 for a couple earning $2 million;
  • 2.20 percent or $210,266 for a couple earning $10 million.

Kocivar said that in an annual PTA survey, nine out of 10 parents say that “adequate funding is the most important issue. No one leaves the room when I mention taxes.”

Poll: Tax with ed reforms is winner

A new poll has confirmed what Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, and others in the 2012 Kids Education Plan coalition expected: An initiative coupling school reforms with a tax increase dedicated to education has a good chance of winning at the polls a year from now.

The qualifiers are important. Less than a majority of respondents said they would be willing to pay a general state tax increase to support state services, including education, but not exclusively for schools. A slight majority said they’d be willing to pay more if it’s exclusively for education. But that rose to two-thirds if paired with the general reforms that the Kids Plan has been promoting. They include giving local districts more control over spending decisions and the hiring and dismissal of teachers.

Neither a sales nor income tax increase drew a majority support when suggested as a new general state tax.
Neither a sales nor income tax increase drew a majority support when suggested as a new general state tax. Click to enlarge. (EMC Research)

“The reform piece is needed to bring folks together,” said Lempert. “It provides a clear path for voters.”

It’s also needed to pick up the financial support of the business community, which will be needed to sustain a long campaign against likely anti-tax opposition.

The Kids Education Plan coalition, which includes the Association of California School Administrators,

Support grew when the income or sales tax was proposed as a tax dedicated to education. Click to enlarge. (EMC Research)
Support grew when the income or sales tax was proposed as a tax dedicated to education. Click to enlarge. (EMC Research)

United Way of Greater Los Angeles, the advocacy group Education Trust-West, Bay Area Council, and San Francisco-based Silver Giving Foundation, commissioned the poll of 600 voters in mid-November by EMC Research in Oakland, a marketing and opinion research firm that has done polling on education issues. Lempert released a six-page summary of the results.

The coalition has not yet written its own initiative. Instead, Lempert has taken on the role of broker, trying over the next month to coax deep-pocket sponsors of several emerging tax initiatives to compromise on one proposal. And that includes Gov. Jerry Brown, who’s said to be days away from announcing a tax initiative that he has been working on with the California Teachers Association. When Republican legislators killed his plan to extend tax increases as part of this year’s budget, Brown pledged to go to voters in 2012.

Push for one tax initiative in November 2012

There is general agreement, based on past elections, Lempert said, that voters would find multiple tax measures confusing and turn them all down. “We are focused on getting one measure on the ballot,” he said.

Today, Los Angeles attorney Molly Munger and a nonprofit she co-founded, the Advancement Project, are expected to send their initiative to the Attorney General for vetting. It would raise $10 billion for preschools through high schools, primarily from the wealthy, by increasing the personal income tax by 1 percentage point. Last week, the Think Long for California Committee, led by billionaire Nicolas Berggruen, proposed government reforms and also a $10 billion tax increase by extending the sales tax to services while lowering the personal and corporate income taxes. Higher education would get half of the money, but preschools and early childhood programs would get none.

Besides differences in who would be funded, there are advantages and liabilities to both proposals. The personal income tax is volatile, so a broader sales tax would provide more revenue predictability. But businesses that provide services, from attorneys to nail salons, will fight a new tax. The CTA will likely oppose Munger’s plan, because it would not mix the new money with Proposition 98, which funds pay increases and health benefits. CTA has already condemned Think Long’s plan for wiping off the books about $14 billion owed to schools. Munger’s plan has elements of the reform favored by Lempert’s group, such as providing bonus money for low-income children and giving school sites more say over how money is used. But those reforms would apply only to new money, not existing Prop 98 funding.

Precise wording of the poll questions is important. A USC/Dornsife poll found that 64 percent of respondents said they’d be willing to pay more taxes to support education. There was no mention of making this tax contingent on reforms.

However, the EMC poll teased out the distinctions:

  • “A narrow 53% majority agree and 43% disagree with the statement The most important thing our schools need is more funding.” The support rises to 66 percent when framed, I would be willing to pay more in taxes for schools if it went along with significant reforms to our state education system.
  • Only 39 percent said they would favor, with 58 percent opposing, a 1% increase in the income tax to provide general fund revenue “for uses such as education, social services, public safety and corrections.” That rose to 55 percent supporting, 42 percent against, when proposed as a dedicated tax for education. (Poll respondents weren’t told that under the state’s progressive tax structure, those earning more than $300,000 would pay the bulk of the new revenue.)
  • 44 percent said they would favor, with 52 percent opposing, a ½ percent increase in the sales tax to provide general fund revenue. That rose to 61 percent supporting, 36 percent against, when proposed as a dedicated sales tax increase for education.

Lempert isn’t talking publicly about specific reforms that the coalition wants. Respondents were read a question citing four general reforms:

  • Create a revised K through 12 education funding system for California that gives control over spending decisions to local communities and educators instead of the state legislature;
  • Require complete financial transparency and accountability for all education spending;
  • Give local school districts more control over teacher hiring and dismissal decisions; and
  • Provide substantial new funding for California schools by implementing a fair, broad-based new statewide tax for education.

However, the pollster then got more detailed, asking respondents about specific ideas, indicating which changes the coalition is interested in:

  • 80 percent favored making it simpler to dismiss underperforming teachers while preserving their right to appeal;
  • 79 percent favored requiring local districts to adopt a comprehensive teacher quality plan governing the recruiting, hiring, training, and evaluating of teachers;
  • 74 percent favored requiring that teachers have four years of experience, instead of two, before receiving permanent tenure status;
  • 72 percent favored expanding access to quality preschool and early childhood education programs;
  • 72 percent favored requiring districts to create a teacher compensation plan, developed with public input, detailing the pay structure for teachers;
  • 66 percent favored setting a base funding level for each student, with more for high-needs students;
  • 59 percent favored allowing district tax measures (parcel taxes) to be passed by 55 percent majority instead of the current 67 percent;
  • 55 percent favored significantly increasing statewide education funding with a broad-based tax raising between $6 billion and $8 billion per year.

Ruth Bernstein, a principal with the pollster EMC, said that the 59 percent support for dropping the threshold for a parcel tax, while lower than other reforms, was higher than in the past. She said she interpreted the 55 percent support for an $8 billion statewide tax as a sign that voters want reforms if they are going to pass a tax of that magnitude.

“We are seeing heightened awareness about the need for more funding,” Bernstein said, “and awareness of structural changes that are needed.”

Initiative: $10B for K-12, preschool

An initiative that would raise $10 billion for K-12 education and preschools by raising the state income tax, primarily on the rich, will be submitted to the Attorney General’s office for review this week, the first step for placing it on the November 2012 ballot. The initiative would target low-income students, who’d get a larger piece of the funding.

The Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization that’s been active in California, is sponsoring the initiative. Its primary creator and financier at this point is Molly Munger, a wealthy Los Angeles civil rights attorney who co-founded the Advancement Project. The daughter of Charles Munger, Warren Buffett’s investment partner and vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, she says she and others will put up the millions of dollars needed to qualify and promote it. The California State PTA has already endorsed it exclusively – ahead of other tax initiatives for schools that are being floated about.

Despite a flagging economy and an unemployment rate stubbornly in the double digits, supporters of more money for schools say they’re heartened by recent polls showing Californians are disturbed by severe cuts to public schools and are willing to pay higher taxes. That includes one by pollster Mark Mellman for the Advancement Project that found that 57 percent of very likely voters would favor its plan, with a third of respondents opposed and 9 percent undecided, a result that “stunned” her and “suggests a once in a generation opportunity,” Munger said.

Last week the Think Long Committee for California, a tax reform group led by billionaire Nicolas Berggruen, also floated a plan to raise an additional $10 billion, but only $5 billion would go to K-12 schools and community colleges, and it would do so primarily by extending the sales tax to services, from car washes to attorney fees, while lowering the personal and corporate income tax rates.

The state’s 5 percent personal income tax raises about $50 billion; Munger’s plan would bring in an additional 20 percent by raising the rate an average of 1 percentage point. But it would keep the current system’s progressivity, so 92 percent of the extra money would be paid by families earning more than $70,000, with 50 percent, or $5 billion, coming from those earning more than $300,000, Munger said. For those couples with taxable income above $5 million, the marginal tax rate would rise 2.2 percentage points to 12.5 percent; they’d pay the most.

The personal income tax has fueled growth in state spending, but it’s a volatile tax, tied to the stock options and fortunes of a sliver of rich Californians. That’s why tax reformers behind Think Long want to broaden the sales tax.

Munger’s plan would take a different approach to leveling the roller coaster ride. Annual revenue that exceeds the increase in the average per capita income in the state would be set aside to pay down the state’s debt for school bonds, which accounts for about half of the state’s indebtedness, she said. That should free up money for future needs.

Money to follow the student

Between property taxes and the state’s general fund, about $45 billion funds Proposition 98 K-12 spending, so Munger’s plan would immediately boost money for schools by nearly 20 percent (community colleges would not be included) . However, the new revenue would go into a separate fund, protected from the Governor’s and Legislature’s subverting Prop 98 and finagling with its arcane rules.

Fifteen percent of the $10 billion would go toward supporting and expanding early childhood and preschool programs, which currently reach only 30 to 40 percent of qualified children, according to a summary of the initiative (the exact wording wasn’t yet available). The remaining 85 percent, or $8.5 billion, would be divvied up as follows:

  • 70 percent of the total in a flat grant per public school student, including students in charter schools, with middle school students getting 20 percent more than elementary school students and high school students getting 40 percent more – reflecting the higher cost of educating older students;
  • 18 percent would provide additional per capita money (about $670) for low-income students eligible for federal Title I aid;
  • 12 percent per student funding for instructional materials, school site technology, and teacher training.

The initiative will state that the new money is not to be used to increase school salaries and benefits; no more than 1 percent can be used for administration.

The money-follows-the-student formula, weighted toward the poor, combines elements of transparency and equity that school finance reformers have been clamoring for. Schools will be required to show how the extra revenue has been used, and the information will be posted on a state Department of Education website, Munger said; parents will then know if districts have heeded their recommendations on how the money should be used in their children’s schools, such as to restore arts, hire more teachers to reduce class sizes, expand STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) offerings.

Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, has similar elements in AB 18, the main finance reform bill that will be worked on next year.

The initiative would begin the transformation, Munger said. “When the model is out there, it gives a push to change the larger finance structure without piling it all in one ballot initiative.”

Hers and Think Long’s are two of several education initiatives that could collide on next November’s ballot. Gov. Brown and the California Teachers Association have yet to announce  their plan to raise money for K-12. A proposal to tax oil and natural gas production, with money to K-12 and higher education, is gathering signatures.

Some tax advocates are hoping proponents will split their differences and put one initiative on the ballot that business, labor, and education reformers can agree on.

For her part, Munger said she’s open to talk in the next month and a half, while her initiative awaits the AG’s review. But she and supporters don’t want to substitute a progressive tax – the personal income tax – for a divisive, more regressive tax, she said. “We are pleased with a proposal that seems to be most reflective of what voters want to do this year,” she said.

A sneak preview of GOP contenders’ brag sheets on education

The year ahead will see no end of blather about the education records and policies of the major presidential contenders, but few assessments are likely to be as much of a curiosity as “The 2012 Republican Candidates (So Far)” in the next issue of the magazine Education Next.

Education Next calls itself a “scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to looking at hard facts about school reform.” With a few exceptions, its editorial board is dominated by voucherites and other conservatives – Paul Peterson, Chester Finn, Bill Evers, John Chubb, Terry Moe, Caroline Hoxby, and Jay Greene – and it has always squinted hard, if politely, to the right.

In this article, by Allison Sherry, the Washington bureau chief of the Denver Post, the squinting becomes more like a stare. It’s not scholarly and omits too much. Sometimes it’s just plain wrong. But its wrongness tells a lot about what you’re likely to hear from Republicans in the campaign next year – and not likely to hear.

The main theme of the piece is that while some of these candidates – Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, if he runs – have sometimes done policy flips in their careers, three of them –Perry, now governor of Texas, Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, and Pawlenty, ditto for Minnesota  – have impressive education records.

Education Next even provides a convenient set of bar graphs headed “Governors Have a Right to Brag.” Fourth and eighth graders in every state headed by one of the three governors, the piece says, correctly, scored higher than the national average in math and reading on NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Romney, it says “is widely credited for raising test scores.” He “proposed education reform measures that lifted the state cap on charter schools and gave principals more power to get rid of ineffective teachers.”

What is doesn’t tell you is that the kids in those states scored nearly as high, and in a couple of cases, higher, before these candidates became governors. Minnesota fourth graders got an average raw score of 225 in math in 2002 (pre-Pawlenty) and 223 in 2009. In 2002, their average was eight points higher than the national average; in 2009, it was three points higher. In reading, Minnesota fourth graders scored 225 in 2002 and 223 in 2009.

The same was true in eighth-grade reading in Texas, where the average score in 2002 was 262 in 2002 and 260 in 2009. And contrary to the implications of the piece, Texas’s reading score was lower than those in 32 other states and jurisdictions. Massachusetts, which had the nation’s highest scores under Romney in 2009, also ranked among the nation’s highest-scoring states in both reading and math before Romney.

In fact, the NAEP scores in the brag chart don’t mean as much as a lot of people seem to think. They’re not aligned with school curricula – and can’t be. The protocols for who gets tested and which English learners and special education students get left out of the testing program, moreover, vary widely. In Texas, 9 percent of all students were exempt from the 2009 reading test; nationally it was 5 percent; in California it was 3 percent.

Also, since the tests have no consequences for students, those picked to take them have no particular reason to make an effort to do well.  NAEP’s own technical reports warn about making state-to-state comparisons based on the tests, but NAEP’s press people blithely ignore those warnings in their handouts.

The piece in Education Next doesn’t allude to that caution either. Instead it lauds Perry and his education commissioner for “pulling up the quality of Texas tests…to a level respected among education reformers.” But the up-pulling seems to have produced little in gains.

The phrase “education reformers”, incidentally, should be read with a touch of caution. In the world of Education Next and other ed-policy conservatives, it’s a euphemism for people demanding “choice” – vouchers, charters, privatization –  “accountability” for teachers as measured by student achievement, and suspicion of, if not outright hostility toward, collective bargaining. It doesn’t mean centrists, much less people who oppose the use of standardized tests in evaluating teachers or individual students.

And, as always, there’s the phony sentimentality about the good old days in the little red schoolhouse.  Education Next quotes Michele Bachmann saying she entered politics “because I want to give my children the incredible educational experience I received from public schools as a student.”

But having been born in 1956, she finished high school less than a decade before publication of A Nation at Risk, which warned in no uncertain terms that America’s schools were going to hell. Maybe that would explain why Bachmann never learned that the American Revolution began not in New Hampshire but in Massachusetts or that the nation’s founding fathers didn’t work all that tirelessly to end slavery as she seems to believe. As Will Rogers was supposed to have said (but probably never did), “The schools were never as good as they used to be.”

And wouldn’t it have been useful for the piece to mention that Bachmann, a creationist, favors the teaching of intelligent design in the public schools? “There are hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel Prizes,” she said in a campaign debate, “who believe in intelligent design.” That surely says more about a would-be president than a few test scores.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report (californiaprogressreport.com) and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.