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Paper Chases: College and Low-Income Students

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President Obama recently signed a bipartisan bill that ties student loan interest rates to the financial markets, which allows this year’s undergraduates to borrow at 3.9 percent interest — nearly half of what they would have paid if Congress had failed to act. As a recent college graduate, I, like many of my peers, was very excited to learn of this decision. However, while the federal government has done great work to help those students who are already enrolled in college, it is effectively failing those students who come from families at or below the poverty line.

A recent Brookings Institute and Princeton University study notes that the federal government is spending around $1 billion per year on programs to help low-income students. Despite this funding, the four major college prep programs, Upward Bound, Upward Bound Math-Science, Student Support Services and Talent Search (known collectively as TRIO), have had “no major effects on college enrollment or completion.” The study shows that students from low-income backgrounds who earn college degrees are 80 percent less likely to be poor. Unfortunately, Brookings and Princeton report that only 34 percent of low-income students actually enroll in college. Of that 34 percent, only 11 percent graduate.

The federal government is spending $1 billion with little or no return, policymakers are focused on other issues, and hardworking low-income students are paying the price. The government needs to refocus its efforts and provide targeted information to low-income students.

The closest thing to such a resource has been developed and marketed by the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB). The CFPB created an 11-part online roadmap called the “Financial Aid Comparison Shopper” to help students navigate the college application process.

This tool, while it has some virtues, still effectively fails low-income college students. The first stages of the CFPB tool, “apply for college” and “research schools,” which would be most relevant to low-income applicants unsure about their college prospects and financial options, merely link to a page hosted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

The NCES page (which looks like it was made in the early 2000s) asks visitors to type in the name of a school, or search by state, zip code, level of award, or institution type. The burden is on the student to search for the right kinds of schools in the right states. There is little guidance as to what kind of school will be the best fit for a given student. By linking to an old-fashioned page with untargeted information, the CFPB is not providing real guidance to low-income applicants. The impacts of this are severe.

Caroline Hoxby, an economics professor at Stanford University, studied 40,000 low-income students and found that simply providing students with an informational tool-kit with targeted information about various colleges and their respective costs made students 53 percent more likely to apply to a peer institution (an institution where the low-income students were just as qualified as their high-income counterparts), 78 percent more likely to be admitted, and 50 percent more likely to enroll.

If the CFPB seeks to remedy the low rates of low-income students attending college, the site needs to be re-worked. It needs to ask students to input specific details about their academic and financial backgrounds and then present a list of potential schools based on those facts.

But the burden is not just on the CFPB. This failure to reach low-income students is a much larger problem that can be seen within all of the federal government’s billion dollar efforts to help potential college students. The untargeted resources transcend every single federal effort.

While the reduction of student loan rates is a major bipartisan achievement with real-world implications, there is still much to be done to increase enrollment and graduation rates among low-income students. The CFPB needs to update its tool, the Department of Education needs to revamp its efforts, and we must not forget those low-income students who have the grades and the drive, but just need a little more guidance in the college search process.

(Asha M. Fereydouni is an alumnus of the University of California, Davis and the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network. This post first appeared on NextNewDeal and is republished with permission.)

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L.A. Teachers Strike Diary: Day Four

Laura Palacios and other teachers take a break from the rain to have lunch, then return to the picket line.

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‘How Long Will the L.A. Teachers Strike Last?’ May Be the Wrong Question

Important byproducts of the walkout include robust dialogues about charter schools and on how much we are willing to invest in public education.

Danny Feingold

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Photo: Bill Raden

In 1973, Philadelphia teachers went on strike for nearly two months. Cleveland teachers walked off the job in 2002 and didn’t come back for 62 days. Last year, teacher strikes in West Virginia and Oklahoma lasted 10 and nine days, respectively.

Nevertheless, just three days after teachers hit the picket line in Los Angeles, the media started to frame the strike in dire terms. One headline in a prominent news outlet asked, “Are the kids all right? LA teachers strike drags into third day with no end in sight,” while another asserted, “L.A. teachers bask in support for strike, but pressure grows to settle amid financial losses.”

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It goes without saying that no one wants a protracted teachers strike; earlier today both sides agreed to return to the negotiating table, with L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti serving as mediator. All things being equal, kids are better off in school, as are teachers.

But strikes usually happen because all things are not equal. Indeed, the goal of a strike is almost invariably to even the playing field.

Sometimes this happens quickly. Fifty years ago, Chicago teachers staged a two-day walkout that led to pay increases and greater job protections. A year earlier, in San Francisco, a one-day strike resulted in raises and smaller class sizes. But as the teacher strikes in Philadelphia and Cleveland illustrate, quick resolutions are not always possible if progress on the underlying problems is to be achieved.

Part of why some in the media are anxiously wondering when a settlement will occur is the relative scarcity of strikes in modern American society, particularly open-ended work stoppages that affect a much larger number of people than the employees in question. This was a major factor in the reaction to last year’s teacher strikes – we are simply not accustomed to seeing labor strife, and having it impact our day-to-day lives.

The unusual nature of a citywide teachers strike in Los Angeles is underscored by the now well-reported fact that the last teacher walkout here was 30 years ago. That means an entire generation has never witnessed picket lines massed in front of a public institution they rely on. Janitors and hotel workers have staged high-profile strikes, but for most of us the direct connection of these actions to our daily routine is minimal.

Conventional wisdom is that the L.A. teachers strike will not last more than a couple of weeks. But the problems at the heart of the strike have been building for 40 years, and may not lend themselves to a quick fix – especially given the stark divide that has arisen between the two sides.

The strike has its roots in the radical defunding of public schools in California, triggered by the 1978 passage of Proposition 13. Layered on top of this is the two-decade-old battle between charter school advocates and defenders of traditional public schools, which has intensified in the past several years.

One silver lining of the L.A. teachers strike is a long-overdue civic conversation about charter schools. This is critical, because a thriving public school system and an inexorably growing charter school movement may not be compatible. Another important byproduct of the strike is a robust dialogue on how much we are willing to invest in public education. Critics of LAUSD have long focused on low test scores and graduation rates, but have seldom been willing to address the fundamental issue of how limited financial resources affect student outcomes.

As the union and the district resume talks, the questions of charter school growth and reinvestment in public schools loom large. If the two sides punt on these in order to achieve a quick settlement, we may see a replay of teacher walkouts in the not-too-distant future. The long-term interests of students, parents and teachers may be better served if the overwhelming public support for teachers forces the district to change course. That could mean looking for new revenue sources, slowing the growth of charter schools that siphon money or Superintendent Austin Beutner pulling back from the expected breakup of the district.

Whether a one-week walkout can produce such a sea change is unclear. For now, the most important question is not how long the strike will last, but how it can achieve the greatest good.


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L.A. Teachers Strike Diary: Day Three

The rain and the strike drag on for teacher Laura Palacios, who balances family duties with picket line vigils.

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L.A. Teachers Strike Diary: Day Two

Los Angeles teacher Laura Palacios confronts the second day of a citywide strike with coffee, doughnuts and a sore throat.

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L.A. Charter School Teachers Also Flex Strike Muscles

Obscured by Los Angeles’ massive public teachers strike, a separate charter-schools walkout targets many of the same issues.

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Photo: Larry Buhl

Teachers at three charter schools are decrying a lack of job protections and rising health-care costs.


 

A day after more than 30,000 teachers in the country’s second-largest school district went on strike, 80 teachers at three South Los Angeles charter schools coincidentally also walked out, marking only the second charter school teacher strike the nation has seen.

Earlier this month 99 percent of the teachers at the three schools operated by The Accelerated Schools (TAS) voted to authorize a strike. Their demands, aside from a pay increase, have been different from those of other United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) teachers who walked off on Monday.

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TAS and UTLA had reached an agreement in March 2018 for an average salary increase of 17 percent for teachers working 195 days in the current school year. But sticking points remained, including binding arbitration to enforce the contract, “just cause” language to govern terminations or nonrenewals, so that teachers can’t be fired arbitrarily, and competitive health benefits. According to Hong Bui, UTLA’s Charter Representative, TAS management proposes to freeze the company contributions, so that any future increase in health-care premiums is borne by employees. Bui noted that binding arbitration and just cause are “enjoyed by 90 percent of unionized teachers in Los Angeles County.”


Grandmother: “There is no excuse that we’re at this point. The money is there. We are not investing in the kids’ education as was promised.”


“Most unionized charter schools have some due process and just cause, but TAS schools do not,” Bui said. Without these protections, the employer can and has made life unbearable for those teachers who speak up.”

Bui added that between 2016 and 2018, TAS schools had nearly a 50 percent staff turnover.

On Monday TAS co-founder and CEO Johnathan Williams said, in a prepared statement: “TAS presented UTLA with a new offer that included a process for teachers with strong performance evaluations to receive a guaranteed two-year contract with a $2,000 bonus upon completion. UTLA refused the offer. Teachers who are doing a great job for students will always have a place at TAS. On behalf of our students, we implore UTLA to work with us to find a reasonable resolution that puts kids first.”

Los Angeles has the nation’s most charter schools, with 277 independent and affiliated schools serving more than 154,000 students. The breakdown can get complicated: District-affiliated charter schools are directly operated by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and their teachers are part of the larger strike that began Monday against the LAUSD.


Union: Between 2016 and 2018, The Accelerated Schools had a nearly 50 percent staff turnover.


Thirty-seven independent charter schools are unionized, and some of those unionized schools, like TAS, are represented by UTLA, while others are represented by the California Teachers Association. (Disclosure: The CTA is a financial supporter of this website.) But their collective bargaining agreements are negotiated with the charter school management, not LAUSD. The California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) estimates that 30 percent of charter schools in the state have some form of a collective bargaining agreement or representation.

At a news conference last week, teachers emphasized that their goal is to improve teacher retention by increasing teacher protections. German Gallardo, who has taught 12th-grade history at Wallis Annenberg High School for the past two years, says that educational progress cannot be made with high teacher turnover. “I have students who have missed teachers for a year, and that inconsistency hurts when we send them off to college,” he said, referring to students who had substitutes for an entire school year.


Randi Weingarten: Educators are not the ones who have framed public schools and charters as competitors. “That’s done by people like Austin Beutner.”


Second-grade teacher Simone Barclay told Capital & Main that TAS instructors are technically “at will” employees without the ability to appeal dismissals, and who don’t know whether their contracts will be renewed year to year. “It creates anxiety and stress and doesn’t allow us to advocate for our students, whether it is [for] special education or resources for our classroom. And it leads to much higher turnover,” Barclay said.
The TAS strike comes after the release of a report by a state-appointed fact-finding panel that included recommendations for resolving many of the outstanding contract issues at TAS.

In the past year there has been a groundswell of public teacher walkouts and strikes in states including West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Kentucky and Colorado. But until December’s walkout of 500 charter educators in Chicago, strikes at charter schools were unheard of. According to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), between 10 and 12 percent of the charter school sector nationwide is unionized, and the rapid growth of charter schools is outpacing the growth of unionization. (Disclosure: AFT is a financial supporter of this website.)

California’s explosive charter growth and competition for students have made charter detractors worry about those quasi-public schools siphoning resources from traditional schools. UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl said teachers are asking for “common-sense regulations on charter school growth” as part of their contract demands, making the concurrent strikes by TAS and LAUSD school educators, in theory, somewhat awkward, although teachers at both schools have told Capital & Main that, no matter where they work, they are in solidarity with one another.


Until last December’s walkout of 500 charter educators in Chicago, strikes at charter schools were unheard of.


Randi Weingarten, president of AFT, said educators are not the ones who have framed public schools and charters, per se, as competitors. “That’s done by people like [LAUSD Superintendent] Austin Beutner . . . and that creates a survival of the fittest. For years they have said that competition in schools is good, but this is a very wrongheaded premise.”

“The charter school industry said their teachers are private school employees,” Weingarten added, “but most charter schools by laws are public schools funded by taxpayers and must enable a voice for parents and educators.”

Charter school supporters, such as TAS founding member and grandmother Hilda Rodriguez-Guzman, say that charters ideally provide a higher quality and more robust education with more flexibility.

“But that’s not what’s happening [at TAS],” Rodriguez-Guzman recently admitted. “There is no excuse that we’re at this point. The money is there. We are not investing in the kids’ education as was promised. It is not acceptable that we keep losing good quality teachers and having substitutes. Sometimes we have computers teaching kids in high school, when they need that human instruction and interaction.”


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L.A. Teachers Strike Diary: Day One

Laura Palacios is a Los Angeles public school teacher married to another teacher. Today the mother of two joined 33,000 other union members in the first L.A. teachers walkout since 1989. This week Capital & Main will follow Palacios during the strike.

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Why a Teachers Strike in Los Angeles Could Bring Big Rewards as Well as Risks

Los Angeles teachers’ demands have moved away from bigger raises and toward more funding to alleviate deep education cuts. But what would constitute victory for their union?

Bobbi Murray

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Photo by Bobbi Murray

A teacher walkout would cast the strike as a challenge to the creeping absorption of public schools by charter management organizations.


 

If Los Angeles’ public school teachers go on strike Monday, they will face off against a school district headed by superintendent Austin Beutner, a multimillionaire investment banker and former L.A. Times publisher with no experience in education policy. Perhaps more important, this strike will play out on an education landscape that has radically changed since 1989, when the United Teachers Los Angeles union last walked out. Foremost has been the national rise of charter schools — which, in California, are tax-supported, nonprofit schools that operate within public school districts, yet with far less oversight and transparency than traditional schools. Only a fraction of charter schools are unionized, a situation preferred by the charters’ most influential supporters, who include some of California’s wealthiest philanthropists.

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For 21 months negotiations have ground on between UTLA and the second-largest district in the nation. (The Los Angeles Unified School District enrolls 640,000 students.) The more nuts-and-bolts issues on the table include union demands for a 6.5 percent pay raise, a limit to class sizes (that can now hover around 38 pupils per classroom), and a push for more support staff such as nurses and librarians.

Kent Wong, executive director of the University of California, Los Angeles’ Labor Center, notes that UTLA’s demands have moved away from larger raises and toward more funding to alleviate the deep education cuts that have been made over the years.

“It is important to understand the bigger forces at work here,” said Wong, who added that the pro-charter forces have invested millions of dollars to elect a pro-charter majority on the Los Angeles school board to shift resources from public schools to charters.


Recent teacher strikes “are not just about pay. They are about the quality of education.”


All strikes are risky undertakings and it’s an axiom that no one wins a strike. But a UTLA walkout would dramatically raise the stakes by casting the strike as a challenge to the creeping absorption of public schools by private charter management organizations.

“A strike is a big deal,” Wong said, because “you have this massive privatization scheme that’s been gutting support for public education and resources for public education. That’s the broader scenario that’s at stake here.”

A walkout by the Los Angeles union (whose 33,000 members include librarians, student counselors and other support staff) would have a recent, successful precedent. Against great odds, Chicago teachers won a seven-day 2012 strike, which became a model that transformed the school-community relationship and how teachers interact with parents. That strike was launched after a careful grassroots effort to build support among parents and the Chicago union; it is cited by Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Labor Center, as a national example.


In Los Angeles signs have popped up in the windows of local businesses declaring, “We Stand With LA Teachers.”


“You could look at the Chicago teachers strike and say that was a brilliant strategy in terms of the level of community support,” said Jacobs. “But stepping back—teachers care about education. If you look at the strikes, they are not just about pay. They are about the quality of education.”

An all-in strike strategy may be risky for UTLA, but the union and others see peril for district management as well. “If [Beutner] is thinking it might be advantageous to provoke a strike,” said Jacobs, “given the recent history we have seen in states across the country and in Chicago, that seems like a foolish position to take.”

The issue in Chicago was Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s effort to close schools and the union’s push to keep them open. This was different from the situation in L.A. and in states along what Jacobs calls the “red thread”– West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona, where the teachers joined with parents to oppose the underfunding of education that has occurred since the 2008 recession. Still, Chicago offers potential lessons for Los Angeles teachers.

Nelson Lichtenstein, who directs UC Santa Barbara’s Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy, calls Chicago “the de facto leader of the teachers unions in the country.”

The Chicago teachers union would later reach out to teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona, sharing their members’ experiences, he said, adding that, in organizing for a potential strike, the traditional big fear is that the parents are going to turn against the union. That didn’t happen in Chicago because of mindful base-building and teachers’ connections with their students and their parents.

That lesson hasn’t been lost on UTLA.


“The union will emerge stronger from this regardless of what happens. They have done a good job of mobilization among their members and with parents.”


In Los Angeles signs have popped up in the windows of local businesses declaring, “We Stand With LA Teachers,” and local parent groups have banded together to support the educators.

“I think the union will emerge stronger from this regardless of what happens,” Lichtenstein said of a possible UTLA strike. “They have done a good job of mobilization among their members and with parents. Things could turn around–a long strike and parents get upset—but I think UTLA is sophisticated enough to know what’s happening. They’d cut their losses.”

What would constitute “victory” for Los Angeles teachers?

“One definition would be very concrete things [like raises and staffing issues] —the union could win some of that,” Lichtenstein said. “The other definition is bigger—it could be the re-funding of public education in California and the country. This kind of strike is a powerful impulse to tell the [Democratic] supermajorities in Sacramento to modify Proposition 13, to bring new sources of funds so that school districts are not starved.”


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Los Angeles Teacher Contract Talks: The Sounds of Silence

With a January 10 strike deadline looming, little progress has been made in negotiations between teachers and their school district.

Bill Raden

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Photo: Bill Raden

“I think universally there is support,” says ESL instructor Monica Braunstein. “Parents are saying, ‘What can we do to support the teachers?’”


 

Los Angeles’ public school drama resumed Wednesday amid a flurry of finger-pointing over responsibility for stalled contract negotiations between Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) that are now in their 21st month.

The new year began with an LAUSD press release charging that UTLA had refused the district’s offer to resume talks since the December 17 release of the state fact-finding panel’s report. “We are willing to work around the clock to resolve all of the outstanding issues, but we cannot make progress if UTLA will not even meet or engage in any discussions,” LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner said in the statement.

The panel’s report had tried to strike a compromise by urging LAUSD to at least partly agree to union demands for lowering class sizes with a modest set-aside for hiring more social services support staff, and for the union to accept the district’s six percent pay raise offer. But the fact-finders didn’t address such non-salary union issues as investments in community schooling, early and adult education, and putting limits on standardized testing. And it left untouched what has emerged as one of the negotiations’ most contentious issues — the district’s protestations of poverty even as it’s built up a nearly $2 billion surplus.

Later that Wednesday morning, Beutner claimed on KPCC radio that the district had asked the union to come back to the table over the holidays but that “UTLA has refused to engage in any kind of bargaining.” The superintendent again asserted that L.A. Unified did not have the money to meet all of UTLA’s demands and that it was up to the union to decide which of them were more important to their members than others.

That brought a quick rejoinder from UTLA, whose own press statement asserted the union hadn’t received a bargaining proposal from LAUSD since October 30 and that the union’s bargaining representatives were still waiting for a formal proposal outlined in informal emails sent by the district on December 28 and 31.

“Rather than formally communicate with the union that represents all LAUSD teachers,” UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl declared, “Beutner once again tries to spin the narrative to make it seem UTLA is unreasonable.”

UTLA followed with a second statement Wednesday night that included a formal rejection of the district’s latest offer, which it described as “basically the same as LAUSD has been putting forward for months, just dressed up slightly differently.” The union added that its bargaining team would be available to meet on Monday, “if the district has a legitimate and clear offer for us to consider.”

In the meantime, both sides continue to brace for the January 10 strike deadline, with the district hiring about 400 non-union substitute teachers and promising that schools will remain open, and teachers at school sites organizing pickets. What remains unclear is how many students will cross those picket lines.

Like many UTLA teachers who are also LAUSD parents, Monica Braunstein, a 15-year adult education ESL teacher at the Abram Friedman Occupational Center, is hoping to avoid a walkout but says that if the mood at her son’s high school is any indication, then parents and students will be squarely behind the strike.

“I think universally there is support,” said Braunstein “The parents are saying, ‘What can we do to support the teachers?’ And there’s been debate. Parents are asking, ‘Are you keeping your kids home? Are you sending them to school?’ My son plans to go picket with the teachers and not cross the picket line.”

Braunstein and other veteran Friedman teachers have already had their hopes dashed by LAUSD’s refusal to negotiate the union’s demand that adult ed teachers be brought up to the same salary schedule as K-12 teachers.

The last time L.A. teachers struck was 1989’s nine-day walkout. According to Jackie Goldberg, who during that dispute was a school board member representing Board District 5 —a seat she is again seeking in the March special election — the relatively minor differences between the district and the union on salaries aren’t the sticking point this time around.

“It’s about the teaching conditions,” she said by phone. “We need more teaching assistants. Every school should have its own plant manager instead of sharing them. It’s ridiculous — [LAUSD is] behaving like we’re still in the Great Recession. Almost every other public agency in California has [restaffed] most if not all the [positions] they either didn’t fill or they laid off since the Great Recession. So we have huge class sizes — amongst the largest in the nation.”

One similarity between 1989 and 2019 that LAUSD’s current surplus dramatically illustrates, Goldberg added, is the district’s credibility problem over its pessimistic, annual three-year budget forecasts.

“In the last 30 years they’ve never been right,” she said. “No one’s saying spend all $1.8 billion. Spend half of it. Spend $800 million. Put $200 million [into] hiring 2,000 classroom teachers, reduce class sizes from the 45 that they are now, or the 40, depending on which school you’re at. There are things they could be doing right now and still put away a billion dollars for reserve.”


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Top Education Stories of 2018

We look back on 10 Capital & Main stories that reported on the changing conflicts within public education.

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Illustration: Define Urban


 

1. California Tries to Close Its College Degree Equity Gap

Bill Raden: It’s been no secret that public higher education in California is badly broken, following four decades of disinvestment and tuition hikes.

Hill Street Studios LLC/Getty Images


 

2. Will New York Fund Amazon Subsidies or Student Debt Relief?

David Sirota: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made headlines begging Amazon to site its second headquarters in the state. Now, however, prominent Democrats in the state Senate and Assembly have slammed the idea of offering taxpayer subsidies to the retail giant.

Co-published by Splinter.

 

Long Island City photo by King of Hearts


 

3. California’s Schools Chief: Why a Low-Profile Job Matters — And Is Awash in Election Money

Bill Raden: The state’s new Superintendent of Public Instruction will have a historic opportunity to correct the course of a system in which the public good has increasingly been compromised by the competing demands of private interest.

 

Superintendent-elect Tony Thurmond


 

4. Living Homeless in California: The University of Hunger

Gabriel Thompson: A January study found that 11 percent of students on the California State University’s 23-campuses reported being homeless during the past year. At Humboldt State nearly a fifth said they’d been homeless at one point during 2017.

 

Illustration: Define Urban


 

5. Living Homeless in California: For Many Kids, Home Is Where the School Is

Bill Raden: The Los Angeles Unified School District has more homeless students than many school districts have in total enrollment. In response, the district has created some innovative policies.

 

(FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)


 

6. Actress Speaks Out Against Lunch Shaming in School Cafeterias

Deborah Klugman: When a student doesn’t have enough money for lunch, cafeteria staff in many school districts take away the child’s tray of hot food and hand the student a brown paper bag containing a cold cheese sandwich and a small milk.


 

7. The Hard Work of Diversifying Higher Education in California

Bill Raden:  In California, where 76 percent of its K-12 enrollment is students of color, diversifying public colleges and universities is a top priority.

 

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)


 

8. Orange County Parents: Change Name of School That Honors Klan Member

Gustavo Arellano: There are over a dozen streets, parks or monuments in Orange County named after former Klan members — and one elementary school.

 

(Photo: Gustavo Arellano)


 

9. Mentors Under Siege: California’s DACA Teachers

Bill Raden: Of California’s roughly 223,000 DACA recipients, an estimated 5,000 are working teachers, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.

 

(David McNew/Getty Images)


 

10. Investment Banker Named Los Angeles Schools Superintendent 

Bill Raden: Austin Beutner, who has no background as an educator, was widely seen as the more politically connected of two finalists, as well as being the prospect most sympathetic to charter schools.

 

Austin Beutner, center. (Photo: Isidoro Hoyos)


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California Tries to Close Its College Degree Equity Gap

It’s been no secret that public higher education in California is badly broken, following four decades of disinvestment and tuition hikes.

Bill Raden

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Today, with California’s higher education system cartwheeling from one crisis to the next, the state’s vaunted Master Plan for Higher Education, which in 1960 revolutionized matriculation with a modern, multi-segmented system of public colleges and research universities, is being attacked as an obstacle to opportunity. Its outworn ideas of access and excellence have been rendered so thoroughly obsolete by demographical change and austerities that education reformers won’t waste their breath or political capital on a master plan redesign. Instead, change advocates are focused on improving delivery.

“We don’t need another blue ribbon commission or task force to study it,” argues Audrey Dow, senior vice president at the research and advocacy group Campaign for College Opportunity. “What we need is a governor who’s going to take action and say, ‘Okay, I’m setting the goal. I’m going to take these policies and make sure that ones [already] on the books are implemented. And then I’m going to add this, and then with my January budget, this is what I’m going to do.’”

That person would be Governor-elect Gavin Newsom, who, on the campaign trail, embraced the idea — if not an actual number — of a state college completion goal. Sacramento has already passed a handful of reforms aimed at streamlining on-time graduations. After inauguration, Newsom will launch “California Promise,” his sweeping education agenda that includes some of the college access, affordability and infrastructure pieces that advocates like Dow insist are needed to close equity gaps.

It’s been no secret that public higher education in California is badly broken. Four decades of disinvestment and dizzying tuition hikes, on top of some of the country’s highest costs of living, have put its world-renowned, formerly low-cost degrees disproportionately out of reach for low-income students and students of color. This year, that sustained neglect was formally recognized when the university system that gave the world its fifth-largest economy slipped from its top rankings spot in the annual QS World University Rankings.

“The big story here is, we’ve had tremendous historical success,” notes John Douglass, a senior research fellow at the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education, who has written on the crisis. “But this system is starting to break down, and it’s just not clear where we’re going, and nobody’s offered a vision on how we can maintain access for Californians to our higher public ed system and the robust relationship of the universities with economic development.”

It’s little wonder that an election eve poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) found that a majority of likely voters said the level of state funding for public higher education was insufficient, and 61 percent thought there is not enough government funding for scholarships and grants for students who need financial help. That’s almost exactly the same percentage that cast their ballots for Newsom, who promised to make affordability and degree completion a top priority.

Better late than never. For the past decade PPIC has issued warnings that California risks crippling its economy if it doesn’t close what the nonpartisan research group says by 2030 will otherwise be a workforce skills gap of 1.1 million baccalaureate degrees. For a state that increasingly relies on — and rewards — highly educated workers to grow its knowledge economy, a degree deficit will translate into lower wages, reduced tax revenues and a widening chasm of income inequality.

Similar concerns in 2009 led the new Obama administration to set a national goal to have 60 percent of all 25-to-34-year-olds complete at least an associate degree by 2020. By 2017, 45 states had adopted or were considering their own college attainment targets. California, however, conspicuously failed to follow suit.

“There’s really been at the state level no real leadership to say, ‘Hey, this is the gap, this is how we’re going to close it, and we’re going to align policy and budget to that, to ensure we set an attainment goal, and hit that attainment goal,” explains Dow.

The irony, she adds, is that more Californians are going to college — and graduating — than ever before. This includes Latinos, who now account for half of the state’s K-12 students. But those numbers are too few and rising too slowly to meet the projected demand. Which is why the College Opportunity campaign has been lobbying Newsom to adopt a statewide college credential attainment goal of 60 percent of adults — or 1.7 million additional degrees — by 2030.

“Within that goal we have to be closing racial equity gaps,” she emphasizes. “There’s just no way that it’s mathematically possible for California to hit 60 percent without closing racial and ethnic gaps in attainment.”

What is possible is for Newsom to combine political leadership with an arsenal of research-proven strategies developed to mitigate the worst completion rates in the state. The 70 percent share of all California’s public college students who attend the 114-campus community college system is an artifact of the Master Plan, which designed the two-year colleges to take all the mostly underserved students whose grades left them ineligible for the elite four-year University of California, and who couldn’t get into the California State University system. Unfortunately, the 2.1 million community college students have only a 47 percent chance of graduating, transferring to a four-year school, or earning some sort of certificate after six years.

One of the more divisive methods being proposed to boost completions is a Jerry Brown pay-for-performance funding scheme from the Gates Foundation that would withhold part of the schools’ $6.7 billion in general funding until specific transfer targets are met. Newsom has remained noncommittal. An early success at clearing a transfer path to the CSUs was the Associate Degrees for Transfer program, in which any student with the certificate is guaranteed admission. Its effectiveness persuaded UC to sign onto a similar program last spring. There’s also Assembly Bill 705, which requires community colleges to consider high school grades rather than placement tests in order to reduce non-credit remedial coursework. Which was also the point last year of CSU’s controversial decision to simply do away with remedial classes altogether as it tries to double its 19 percent four-year graduation rate to 40 percent by 2025.

It is to eliminate such frictions that Newsom has vowed to revive a version of the defunct California Postsecondary Education Commission (CPEC) to coordinate student-centered reforms across the UC, CSU and community colleges. Jerry Brown had eliminated CPEC in a 2011 line-item budget veto, claiming it had become “ineffective,” then vetoed a subsequent effort to revive it. The new commission will also oversee what could be Newsom’s most impactful proposal — an integrated data system to both track student progress and act as early-intervention radar by anticipating problems on the degree track. But as promising as that might sound on paper, university veterans of past budgetary battles may require convincing.

“At the moment, I don’t really know how high higher education is in Newsom’s agenda,” Douglass says warily. “I think it could be like Jerry Brown’s, which was not very high. The only issues he really cared about was the politically popular issue of freezing tuition, not looking at, well, what is the financial model? How can the system grow with the state’s population and needs?”

But Newsom’s campaign trail commitments to degree equity and to expanding affordability have already persuaded Dow and other college education advocates. The real proof will come in how much he’ll include for higher education in his first, January budget, and in how soon he’ll honor his campaign pledge to double the state’s current year of free community college or to expand Cal Grant B Access awards for low-income students as a pathway to a debt-free degree.

“Those are the costs that really put students into debt or keep students from going full time,” Dow argues. “We have to be thinking about time-to-degree as an affordability issue. When students at a community college take six years to complete, that’s four additional years that they’re paying for tuition when it should have been two years.”

The truth is, Dow would have good reason to be optimistic about any young governor entering office at the head of a mandate-like blue wave of legislative Democratic supermajorities, and with a projected $14 billion surplus to turn his promises into policies.

“We will see what happens,” she says.


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