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Presidential Debate: Education’s 13 Minutes of Fame

Cory Booker emerges from the school choice closet. More California kids are missing classes due to fires. Ethnic studies gets a reboot.




Cory Booker
Cory Booker photo by Gage Skidmore

Education finally took the stage at last week’s third televised debate between 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls, but apart from a consensus that the country needed to cough up more money for its underpaid teachers, the 13-minute segment was only notable for the reluctance of even the pack’s vocal charter school supporters to advertise that allegiance on national TV. Only Senator Cory Booker emerged from the school choice closet long enough to tout his bitterly divisive effort as Newark mayor to dismantle the city’s public schools and turn the town into the “charter school capital of the world.”

Learning Curves” is a weekly roundup of news items, profiles and dish about the intersection of education and inequality. Send tips, feedback and announcements of upcoming events to, @BillRaden.

Vying for most progressive contender status were senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Warren plugged her plutocrat tax (two cents on every dollar of fortunes exceeding $50 million; three cents on hoards above a billion dollars) to pay for zero-to-5 universal childcare, universal pre-K and the cancellation of at least some student loan debt for 95 percent of all debtors. Bernie promised debt-free college, the cancellation of all existing student loan debt, competitive teacher wages and universal pre-K with his proposed Wall Street tax, which would impose a small levy on all trades. The issue most conspicuous by its absence? The gross inequities between rich and poor schools hardwired into the states’ predominantly property tax-tied funding systems, noted WaPo’s Valerie Strauss. That, and the abject failure of cash-starved federal programs designed to close those money gaps.

Not much has been said about how public schools might be impacted by rising global greenhouse gas emissions or Trump policies bent on “aggressively accelerating [the planet] toward the climate cliff.” But this week CalMatters connected some alarming dots showing how, as wildfires are becoming bigger and longer, so too are disruptions to public school calendars. The most sobering statistic? Prior to 2015, no California public school had reported losing 15 instructional days or more due to wildfires. Since then, more than 70 schools have logged fire-caused shutdowns of that length, with many more registering closures of two to three weeks. As predicted extreme climate events like droughts, heat waves, wildfires and floods increase, so too will absentee rates like these record-breaking numbers from the most recent fire cycle:

  • 2015-16: Nearly 100 California schools close because of wildfires, affecting 23,000-plus students.
  • August, 2016: Major fires lock out more than 91,000 students, some for up to 12 school days.
  • 2017-18: More than 865,000 students lose instructional time, mostly in the fall fire season, with 19,000 Ventura County kids hit again the following March with flooding and mudslide-related closures.
  • 2018-19: Over 1.1 million kids lose days — and sometimes weeks —during the deadliest and most destructive fire season in California history.

While research says that kids can shrug off a day or two of lost instruction, student achievement is negatively impacted by longer absences, especially when exacerbated by wildfire-related traumas like sudden homelessness. CalMatters found that more than half of the 320 schools that lost 10 or more instructional days to recent wildfires later developed chronic absenteeism rates higher than the 11 percent state average.

This week State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond announced his plan to “revise and improve” California’s proposed ethnic studies curriculum framework draft that had been shot down last month in a Sacramento political firefight. The 2020 Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC), which was designed by leading university ethnic studies researchers and teacher-practitioners appointed to an ESMC advisory committee, had its timeline extended last week by the legislature through March 2021.

Thurmond’s plan? Persuade the Instructional Quality Commission (IQC) to put off any action on the ESMC draft at its September 20 meeting until a new ethnic studies panel can tinker with the draft, based on input from “ethnic studies teachers, ethnologists, experts, and interested parties.” A spokesperson for Save CA Ethnic Studies, a coalition of ethnic studies professionals and advocates that has started an online petition to preserve the ESMC’s primary focus on communities of color, was cautiously optimistic. “In a sense, [Thurmond’s] statement is a win for our Save CA Ethnic Studies movement and a testament to the momentum we’ve built over the past few weeks,” veteran LAUSD teacher R. Tolteka Cuauhtin told EdSource.

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