Can Education in California Be Salvaged?

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday March 03, 2010 - 07:08:00 PM

This week is education week in California. All over the state, especially on Thursday, there are demonstrations planned to protest the cuts in funding and tuition increases which have been made necessary by the legislature’s inability or unwillingness to allocate the money which is needed to support even a modest amount of education. Sob stories abound at every level. Shocking statistics comparing California unfavorably to the poorest, most benighted states in the union are all too easy to find. 

In celebration of education week, I went down to Watsonville on Tuesday to take in a joint performance by the Santa Cruz County Symphony and the Santa Cruz Youth Symphony for the town’s schoolkids. (Full disclosure: I’m related to one of the violinists.) It was a wonderful event, simultaneously heart-warming and heart-breaking. 

The conductor really knew how to work his crowd. The musical program had a circus theme, and as an added attraction there were kids doing stilt-walking, juggling, tumbling, unicycling—the full panoply of circus attractions performed by students from a private school which teaches such skills as part of its curriculum.  

The grand finale was “The March of the Gladiators”, the familiar bombastic theme which has traditionally accompanied the opening parade of circus performers for at least 100 years. Students came up on stage and took turns wielding the baton for that number.  

The audience ate it up. The Watsonville crowd, filling every seat in a sizeable auditorium, seemed to be overwhelmingly Hispanic, boys and girls with big brown eyes, chattering in both Spanish and English as they filed into their seats. They’re the future of rural California schools as the Anglo population moves into the cities and has smaller families. They bounced up and down in their seats in time to the music, did some air-conducting, tapped their feet—full body music appreciation. 

At one point the conductor asked everyone who was taking music in school to raise his or her hand. A few hands went up, maybe one in twenty or even just one in fifty. That’s where the heart-breaking part comes in. 

It was clear that almost every child in that audience would love to learn how to make music. But I know that public school budgets, especially outside of Berkeley, have been cut to the point where music lessons, once a standard part of the curriculum, have started to look like a luxury that many districts can no longer afford. 

It’s become fashionable in some circles to say that students need to be drilled and tested on the basic skills of reading and arithmetic above all else. This started with the No Child Left Behind program usually attributed to George W. Bush, but also supported by the otherwise excellent Congressman George Miller of Contra Costa County. It’s being continued in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, backed by the president’s basketball buddy Arne Duncan, which is organized on a competitive sports model to play schools off against one another.  

But there are better ways to educate children, more effective ways. As I looked out over the Watsonville audience, I was reminded of another bunch of kids with big bright brown eyes that I’d seen on a YouTube video, the orchestra of Venezuela’s El Systema.  

Venezuela, a generally poor country with some oil-generated revenues, decided that the best way to bring slum kids into the mainstream is to give all of them a first class musical education in order get them interested in learning, and the plan has worked like a charm. Its trophy success is Gustavo Dudamel, who came up through the ranks to conduct the project’s world-renowned national youth orchestra and went from there to lead the LA Philharmonic while still in his twenties. But many more Venezulan children have grown up as productive citizens because of El Systema though they never became professional musicians. 

Joana Carneiros, the new conductor of the Berkeley Symphony, also looks like the kids in the Watsonville audience, with the same brown eyes and long brown hair, but she received her musical training in Portugal, not the United States. However Michael Morgan, the charismatic African-American conductor of the Oakland East Bay Symphony, is a proud product of the Washington D.C. schools, and he runs a vigorous program to put musicians in the Oakland schools to pay back the debt he acknowledges to his public education. 

No special program, however, can take the place of the free access to basic music lessons for every public schoolchild which used to be standard in California and the rest of the United States, as Morgan pointed out at his last Oakland concert. Many studies have shown that learning music dramatically improves performance in other academic areas. 

All over California, citizens are starting to wake up to the news that our once-fabled educational system has collapsed. A university system that educated people my age for the grand sum of $60 per semester in fees now requires students to sign up for the equivalent of sub-prime mortgages to pay tuition. And crucial “frills” like music are suffering worst of all.  

Is there a cure for what ails us? The analysis of what went wrong goes back to greedy Proposition 13, enacted in the late seventies, which gave property owners and corporations permission to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. Its most pernicious provision is the requirement that the legislature needs a two-thirds vote to pass any tax measure. This is made worse by the completely gerrymandered situation in the state’s legislative districts, under which legislators are chosen de facto in primaries. This means that representatives from districts which have been carved out for Republicans are usually Tea-Party-esque troglydites, unwilling to pass anything that might increase taxes and all too willing to cut essential state programs, education included. 

One small ray of hope: a promising initiative, the brainchild of U.C. Berkeley Professor George Lakoff, is being circulated now to go on the ballot in November.  

It’s called the California Democracy Act, and it’s very simple. 

It changes just two words in the California Constitution to read: “All legislative actions on revenue and budget must be determined by a majority vote”. Two-thirds” becomes “a majority” in just two places. Organizers claim that’s all it takes to make California sane and solvent again. 

This initiative has no paid circulators, so getting it on the ballot will require a huge amount of work. Volunteers will be in Sproul Plaza on Thursday, and they’ve been at the farmers’ markets for a couple of weeks now. 

You can also go to www.Californiansfordemocracy.com where you can print out and sign and mail the petition. Do it today. It won’t hurt, and it might help.