SACRAMENTO – It was nearly 40 years ago that California set a national trend by creating a comprehensive Master Plan for Higher Education, a blueprint for the state’s public universities and community colleges.
Now, state officials again are in the spotlight as they attempt to expand that plan to include preschool through high school.
The ambitious and unprecedented project started in 1999 after the state Legislature created the Joint Committee for Master Planning, which is made up of nine senators and 10 assemblymembers.
Now, the plan is almost complete and a rough draft was released in May. The final version is expected in August.
The plan will serve as a roadmap for students as they enter preschool and make their way through college. It comes with recommendations that the Legislature will implement in coming years to try to unite the fragmented and troubled educational system.
It will also try to smooth the transition for students as they leave high school and go to college or enter the work force.
Navigating students through to higher education is hardly a new idea, says Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
“There’s a big effort going on in the country to close the gap between the various levels of education to make the transition for students better,” Callan said. “Different states have different strategies for how to do that.”
Florida tackled the problem by consolidating all public education — schools, colleges and universities — under a single state board of education.
More than a dozen other states already have K-16 councils. Maryland has set up a voluntary statewide council and Georgia is on its way to creating a mandatory council.
Lora Weber, spokeswoman for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, said the Legislature has been trying for years to approve bills that would have combined the K-12 education department with the Higher Education Board.
“We’re always doing things in joint efforts. We have the (preschool) through 16 Council, but it’s really just an ad hoc group,” Weber said.
Stephan Blake, chief consultant for the joint committee, said the Legislature decided to redraft the plan to coordinate the attempts at education reform, which up until now have been disjointed efforts to improve only parts of the education system at any given time.
“We really have been operating without any kind of vision or framework,” Blake said. “The higher education Master Plan not only laid out a framework that led to our success, but it also gave great stability to the policy arena, whereas there is no stability around K-12 policies.”
The preliminary plan recommends a number of changes to the current system. In the initial phase of a child’s education, the plan suggests requiring full-day kindergarten classes and universal access to preschool. The plan also suggests increasing funding to screen children for developmental disabilities before they become barriers to learning.
On the other end, as students prepare for college, it suggests creating a standard high school curriculum and coordinating it with the requirements to get into college.
Other states, like Oregon, are also pushing to require public institutions to accept high school exit examinations in place of standardized assessment tests.
At the state level, the plan says changing the education governance structure is necessary. It recommends making the Department of Education part of the governor’s cabinet.
“We think that if we are going to have meaningful accountability we need to make changes in the alignment of the authority,” Blake said.
The rough draft is the product of years of working with California educators, parents, education experts and business leaders to design a blueprint that state officials can work with, Blake said. Now that they have a working plan, they are asking for public input.
Starting Monday, the committee will operate a two-week online forum, where people can discuss the various elements of the plan with the educators, business leaders and state officials who developed it. They will also hold hearings around the state this summer. The committee will make changes based on those comments.
And when the time comes to adopt the final project, the committee expects education experts across the nation to be watching.
“California is usually ahead of the curve on taking on these issues,” said Gordon Vanderwater, a researcher for the Education Commission of the States. “Everyone is going to be very interested.
“But California is so big that other states may have a hard time relating,” he added. “California faces immigration issues, language barriers, diversity and urban issues. These issues aren’t unique, because other states face them too, but not on such a grand scale.”
Whether the plan will improve the California education system is up to the politicians, according to Lance Izumi, director of the Pacific Research Institute’s Center for School Reform.
“It’s a massive, massive plan,” Izumi said. “If the committees and Legislature get bogged down in minutia, it’s going to be overwhelming.”
“This thing can be a reform document or something that just tinkers at the edges,” he said. “It’s up to the Legislature as to what kind of document they want to lead them in the coming decades.”