No issue is more pressing in California than education. In late October, the state released scores for the first post-Covid-shutdown state standardized test, conducted earlier last year. The results were horrendous. Less than half of all students who took the Smarter Balanced test—47.1 percent—met the state standard in English language arts, down 4 percentage points from 2018–19. One-third of students met the standard in math, down 6.5 percentage points. Only 16 percent of black students and 9.7 percent of English learners met standards in math.
Not only did test scores plummet; the state’s chronic absenteeism rate has also skyrocketed. The no-show rate leapt from 14.3 percent in 2020–21 to 30 percent in 2021–22. (California defines chronic absenteeism as students missing 10 percent of the days they were enrolled for any reason.) But amazingly, during the 2021–22 school year, data showed that the state’s four-year high school graduation rate climbed to 87 percent, up from 83.6 percent in 2020–21.
How is this possible?
EdSource’s John Fensterwald explains: “The high school graduation rate in 2021–22 reached a record high statewide and rose significantly for most student groups, although the progress warrants an asterisk. Recognizing the hardships many students experienced during Covid and the challenges of teachers in grading fairly during remote learning, the Legislature passed Assembly Bill 104. It allowed parents to request that F’s and D’s for high school students be changed to pass or no-pass. It also gave last year’s juniors and seniors the option to graduate with the state’s minimum requirements, made up of 13 courses totaling about 130 credits.”
The situation in Los Angeles is even more egregious. About 46 percent of the city’s students were chronically absent last year— more than double compared with the previous year, according to district numbers. Nevertheless, their grades are rising.
Standardized test scores tell a different story, however. The Los Angeles Times examined district-wide spring 2022 grades and the state’s 2022 standardized test scores. The paper summarized some of its findings:
In math, 73% of 11th-graders earned A’s, B’s, and C’s. Tests scores showed only 19% met grade-level standards.
For eighth-graders, 79% earned A’s, B’s and C’s in math. Test scores showed 23% met grade-level standards.
In English, 85% of sixth-graders earned A’s, B’s and C’s, while 40% met grade-level standards.
For seventh-graders, 82% earned A’s, B’s and C’s in English. Test scores showed 43% met standards.
According to World Population Review, California now leads the country in illiteracy. In fact, 23.1 percent of Californians over age 15 cannot read this sentence. While some of this poor showing is due to a huge influx of migrants from California’s porous southern border, much of the blame falls on the state’s failing public schools.
California seems in no rush to correct these educational shortcomings. Unlike other states—Mississippi, North Carolina, Florida, Connecticut, Colorado, and Virginia—the Golden State has not adopted any comprehensive literacy plan to ensure that children can read by third grade, nor has it indicated that it intends to create such a plan.
Voters’ attitudes toward the state’s government-run schools have tumbled accordingly. A poll from UC–Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies in early 2022 reveals that just 35 percent of the state’s voters give public schools in their local district a grade of A or B, down from 55 percent in 2011. At the other end of the spectrum, 25 percent now grade their local public schools a D or an F, up from 10 percent in 2011. The poll included responses from 800 California voters, half of whom identify as Democrats, 26 percent as Republican, and 24 percent as independent.
Given this general dissatisfaction, not to mention policymakers’ suffocating response to Covid, it’s no surprise that enrollment in California schools is plummeting.
Already in 2018–19, about 23,000 students had left the system, but between the 2019–20 and 2020–21 school years, public school enrollment in California dropped by more than seven times that figure, with 175,761 students leaving. And it is likely to get worse. According to the State Department of Finance, in the 2021–22 school year, California experienced its fifth consecutive drop in total public K–12 enrollment, losing 110,000 students. If current trends hold for the next decade, the state will see a further decline of 524,000 by 2030–31.
In Los Angeles, the exodus is massive. Twenty years ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District was home to 737,000 students, but officials now forecast that enrollment will dip below 400,000 by the fall of 2023. Nevertheless, Cecily Myart-Cruz, the radical leader of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, remains upbeat. In 2021, when asked how her union’s insistence on keeping L.A. schools locked down for more than a year during Covid affected the city’s K–12 students, she insisted: “There is no such thing as learning loss. Our kids didn’t lose anything. It’s OK that our babies may not have learned all their times tables. They learned resilience. They learned survival. They learned critical-thinking skills. They know the difference between a riot and a protest. They know the words ‘insurrection’ and ‘coup.’”
Just to the south, San Diego is also losing students from its public schools at a faster clip than district leaders expected. In Oakland, the school board has voted to close seven schools over the next two years because of sagging enrollment.
According to a 2022 PACE/USC Rossier Poll, more than one in four California parents switched their child’s school during the pandemic. Some are now being schooled in other states because their parents moved away, while others are being homeschooled or have been enrolled in private schools. And still other parents are sending their children to charter schools, which saw 15,283 new enrollees in the 2020–21 school year—a 2.3 percent increase from the previous year—bringing the total to 690,657. By contrast, the 175,761 students who exited the state’s public schools reflect a 3.2 percent drop.
A major reason for these shifting numbers is that charters did a much better job during the pandemic. A study conducted by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes examined how charter schools responded to Covid, compared with traditional public schools in California, New York, and Washington for the period from March to June 2020, and then for the 2020–21 school year. Researchers found that charters were able to pivot from in-school teaching to remote instruction remarkably quickly. In spring 2020, charter schools in California took an average of just four days to shift to remote teaching once they closed their doors; bureaucracy-laden traditional public schools never got it quite right.
This should not come as a surprise. Charters typically have outperformed traditional public schools. A 2014 study from Stanford University found that low-income black students in California charter schools gained 36 more days of learning in reading and 43 more days in math a year than their district school counterparts. In 2017, Stanford released the results of a study that revealed that the longer students attend schools in charter networks, the greater their gains. For example, “in math, students attending schools in charter networks gain, on average, about 34 more days of learning in their first year than similar students in traditional district schools. By their third year in that school, they gain 69 additional days of learning—roughly twice the growth.”
What distinguishes charter schools, of course, is that they are independent, flexible, and—perhaps most important—rarely unionized. Unlike in district schools, the teachers’ unions, in most cases, must organize each charter school individually, a time-consuming and costly process.
The teachers’ unions did not take kindly to California’s uptick in charter enrollment and mounted a counteroffensive. Grasping at straws, the competition-phobic California Teachers Association (CTA), which regularly attacks charters, claimed that schools must be “accountable to our communities” and called for a “moratorium on unregulated charters.” In reality, charter schools are more accountable and regulated than district schools, since parents actively choose to enroll their kids there and, if unsatisfied, can pull them out and enroll them elsewhere.
As the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reports, California’s current statewide cap on charter schools is 2,450, though the cap is raised by 100 schools each year. The CTA and its many beneficiaries of political donations in the state legislature cannot abide competition, however. The latest in a long line of bills that attempt to kneecap charters appeared in February 2021, when AB 1316 was introduced in the state assembly. Weighing in at over 30,000 words, this expansive legislation was designed to prevent any growth in charter school enrollment, defund online-learning programs associated with charter schools, and force the closure of those charters unable to cope with the mountain of new regulations. The bill, according to the California Charter Schools Association, would have prohibited “multiple-track schools that offer additional instructional days than students would otherwise receive, and [would have restricted] instructional day flexibility for all charter schools that would negatively hurt at-risk students who require scheduling flexibility.” This restriction would cripple the types of innovation and adaptability to student needs that differentiate charters from conventional public schools. Fortunately, in June 2021, the bill was ordered to the “inactive file,” and it was officially put to rest in February 2022.
The unions also insisted that charter schools siphon funding from traditional public schools. This is a fallacy, however, as Michael J. Petrilli and David Griffith noted while discussing a new study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. In most states, a public school district’s total revenue per pupil actually increased as the percentage of local students enrolled in charter schools rose. In California, the Fordham study found, “a 10 percentage point increase in the percentage of students attending charter schools that were authorized by counties or the State Board of Education (after being rejected by the host district) was associated with a 5 percent increase in host districts’ total revenue per pupil and a 4 percent increase in their instructional spending per pupil.”
The unions’ top priorities are bolstering their bottom line and maintaining political power. But now that the calamity they have made of public education has led to growing numbers of families fleeing government-run schools, they will be weakened, at least somewhat, in both these efforts.
Across the U.S., 32 states, along with Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, operate a total of 65 private school-choice programs—involving vouchers, educational savings accounts (ESAs), tax-credit scholarships, or special-needs scholarship programs. California has none. With the state facing an ongoing exodus of residents, any private school-choice measure could help persuade unhappy parents to remain in the Golden State.
Two similarly worded school-choice ballot measures were planned for 2022, but supporters of one abandoned it early on, and the signature-gathering effort for the other fell far short. These initiatives would have given parents, instead of bureaucrats, control over the state’s educational dollars; the CTA did its best to kill them both. At a speech to the CTA’s State Council in October 2021, union president E. Toby Boyd claimed that vouchers use “public funds to send students to private and religious schools, taking money and vital resources away from public schools. Voters have rejected school vouchers twice before, but there’s no doubt these measures will be well-funded and will require our solidarity, strength and good organizing to defeat.” The measures may reemerge in 2024.
On a page from its website, the CTA promises “facts, based on research” about school choice, but its “facts” are bunk. For example, the CTA contends: “Voucher programs have their roots in discrimination and continue to foster it.” But as researcher Greg Forster reports, ten empirical studies have examined private school-choice programs on the matter of segregation; nine found that the programs actually reduced it, and one found no apparent effect. Additionally, a recent EdChoice poll shows that, when given a fair description of school-choice types, most minorities approve of them. In fact, 80 percent of black and Hispanic parents support ESAs.
The CTA opposes school choice because private school teachers are not unionized and would be hard to organize. The union’s opposition has nothing to do with education or concern for children. The union’s arguments are about as factually valid as those of a late-night TV pitchman trying to sell men spray-on hair to cover bald spots. But at least the late-night huckster doesn’t influence educational policy for 6 million children.
While California students’ skills in reading and math have languished, policymakers and legislators have kept themselves busy implementing radical, ideologically driven curricular changes and laws.
In the proposed 2022 draft revision of the California Department of Education’s Mathematics Framework, the chapter “Teaching for Equity and Engagement” includes this language: “Empowering students with mathematics also includes removing the high stakes of errors and sending the message that learning is always unfinished and that it is safe to take mathematical risks. This mind-set creates the conditions for students to develop a sense of ownership over their mathematical thinking and their right to belong to the discipline of mathematics.” It also suggests that math should not be colorblind and that teachers should use lessons to explore social-justice issues by looking out for gender stereotypes in word problems and applying math concepts to topics like immigration and inequality. After participants expressed their displeasure during a comment period, the education department delayed a decision on the draft revision until 2023.
In October 2021, California governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 101, which requires Golden State high school students to take a one-semester ethnic-studies class to graduate, beginning in the 2029–30 school year. Though the state has issued a controversial model curriculum, it will be up to each school district to determine content. With 1,037 districts in the state, school board meetings over the next few years will be battlegrounds.
Some insist that critical race theory is not being taught in public schools. “Let’s be clear,” Randi Weingarten told an American Federation of Teachers conference in July 2021. “Critical race theory is not taught in elementary schools or high schools.” But make no mistake: CRT is most definitely being taught. In December 2021, John Murawski at RealClearInvestigations provided abundant evidence. One of myriad examples he offered concerned Manuel Rustin, a high school history teacher who helped oversee the drafting of California’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum. “Ethnic studies without Critical Race Theory is not ethnic studies,” said Rustin. “It would be like a science class without the scientific method. There is no critical analysis of systems of power and experiences of these marginalized groups without Critical Race Theory.”
Thousands of American educators use Lucy Calkins’s Units of Study to teach children to read, report Daniel Buck and James Furey. One part of Calkins’s Critical Literacy: Unlocking Contemporary Fiction, geared to middle school students, discloses that the unit will delve into “the politics of race, class, and gender.” Buck and Furey explain: “One activity asks students to break down ‘hegemonic masculinity’ in the books they’re reading. Another builds ‘identity lenses’ through which students can analyze various texts, including ‘critical race theories’ and ‘gender theories.’ References to identity pervade nearly every page. Accompanying materials declare that the curriculum is ‘dedicated’ to teaching ‘critical literacies’ that will ‘help readers investigate power.’”
In Los Angeles, the school district’s Office of Human Relations, Diversity & Equity released a PowerPoint presentation explaining that CRT isn’t being taught in schools. At the same time, the district delivered presentations that did precisely that. L.A. Unified also mandated that teachers take an antiracism course taught by a known critical race theorist who told them to “challenge whiteness.”
Democratic lawmakers are trying to make California a haven for gender-dysphoric youth. SB 107, which took effect in January 2023, is designed to provide refuge to trans children and their families “if they flee to California from Alabama, Texas, Idaho or any other state criminalizing the parents of trans kids for allowing them to receive gender affirming care”—defined here as “medically necessary health care that respects the gender identity of the patient, as experienced and defined by the patient.” SB 107 will protect these parents “from having their kids taken away from them or from being criminally prosecuted for supporting their trans kids’ access to healthcare.”
California is also home to AB 2119, passed in September 2018, which stipulates that the “rights of minors and nonminors in foster care . . . include the right to be involved in the development of case plan elements related to placement and gender affirming health care, with consideration of their gender identity.” While the bill was still under consideration, the American College of Pediatricians filed testimony urging legislators to reject it. “Children with gender dysphoria believe they are not their biological sex,” the group’s March 2018 testimony read. “A delusion is a fixed false belief. This bill proposes that foster children with gender dysphoria be socially affirmed into their delusion, and allowed to obtain experimental puberty blockers, and dangerous cross-sex hormones and surgery without parental consent.”
In September 2021, California legislators passed AB 1184, a bill cosponsored by Planned Parenthood. As the California Family Council explains, this diktat “prohibits insurance companies from revealing to the policyholder the ‘sensitive services’ of anyone on their policy, including minor children (starting at age 12), even though the policy owner is financially responsible for the services.” The term “sensitive services” refers to all health care related to mental, behavioral, sexual, or reproductive health, as well as treatments for sexually transmitted infections, substance use disorder, and gender-affirming care. The bill doesn’t define what constitutes “gender-affirming care,” but as defined by the University of California–San Francisco, it means hormone therapy and a laundry list of surgeries, including vaginectomy, scrotoplasty, and voice modification, among other procedures.
The CTA, of course, is on board with this radical agenda. At a conference in October 2021, teachers were advised on, in the words of Abigail Shrier, “best practices for subverting parents, conservative communities and school principals on issues of gender identity and sexual orientation.”
And there’s more. In October 2021, California passed a “Menstrual Equity Act,” which stipulates that at least one boys’ bathroom in every middle and high school should have tampon dispensers. The state’s education department recommends books to young students that teach about expanded sexualities and gender identities. Julian Is a Mermaid, for example, deemed appropriate for preschoolers and kindergarteners, describes a young boy who wants to be a sea-dwelling creature after he sees a parade of people dressed up as mermaids while out with his grandmother. The boy puts on lipstick and makes himself a mermaid costume, while his grandmother gives him a beaded necklace to complete his outfit.
A high school teacher in the Capistrano school district keeps a “queer library” in her classroom, filled with more than 100 books, some of which contain sexual imagery, as well as information on orgies, sex parties, and BDSM. In Los Angeles, the school district proudly hosts a “Rainbow Club,” a ten-week district-wide virtual club for “LGBTQ+ elementary school students, their friends and their grown-ups.” The poster specifies that it is for children ranging in age from transitional kindergarten (i.e., four-year-olds) through fifth grade.
Resistance to this radical agenda is mounting, however, among parents, educators, and concerned citizens. In California, groups including Protect Our Kids, Informed Parents of California, Californians for Equal Rights, Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies, Educators for Quality and Equality, Parent Revolt, and others provide valuable information and resources to parents interested in challenging CRT and radical gender ideology. Parent Revolt, started by the California Republican Party, recruits and trains candidates to run for school board seats.
In Oakland, a newly formed coalition of parents dissatisfied with the state of public education is trying to get a seat at the table before the Oakland Unified School District negotiates a new contract with the teachers’ union. Individual school districts are also taking steps to protect children. Ramona Unified in Southern California has adopted a civic education policy that won unanimous approval from the school board. The new guidelines ban the teaching of ten concepts about race, including “teaching that a person is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive because of their race or sex, whether intentionally or unintentionally; a person’s worth is determined by their race or sex; a person bears responsibility for past actions of people of the same race or sex; a person should feel guilty or not because of their race or sex; and that the advent of slavery constituted the beginning of the United States.”
Even with these hopeful signs of resistance, many California school districts are still forcing radical curricula about race and gender on children, and the state continues to pass parent-unfriendly laws. Those looking to undo this damage have a long way to go. Until the state reverses course, expect California’s great public school exodus to continue.
Top Photo: Masked and indoctrinated: students in a Los Angeles high school in 2021 (ALLISON ZAUCHA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX)