By PETE GOLIS
As summer winds down, 71,000 local students are returning to the classroom. If you don’t care about their success, you should. As legions of local baby boomers count the days until retirement, the success of these kids will go a long way toward determining the quality of life in Sonoma County.
So, how are we doing?
“Our public education program is crippled,” Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Steven Herrington told a radio interviewer in July. “…What we’re doing now is just keeping it on life support for the next couple of years.”
I asked Herrington last week whether he wished he had been less direct. “I meant financially crippled, and we’re just keeping it on financial life support,” he corrected.
Herrington has a tough job. By his own account, “my job is to sell public schools,” but he also must be an advocate for education — which means warning about the dangers posed by the relentless erosion of school resources.
In our conversation, he was quick to add: “Sonoma County has some of the best schools in California.” Seventy-five local schools have won the Distinguished School award, he noted, and 33 of those schools have won it more than once.
As students return to school, we are reminded of the damage being inflicted on what was once the finest system of public education in the world.
At Santa Rosa Junior College, a student group protested a state budget that translates into higher fees and fewer class choices at the same time. At Sonoma State University, President Ruben Armiñana told a campus convocation the school receives the same amount of state support it received a decade ago, while enrollment has grown by a thousand students.
By the numbers, things don’t look so different from a year ago in the county’s K-12 schools: 71,000 students, 200 elementary schools, 18 high schools, 35 charter schools, 40 districts. (Yes, Sonoma County still has 40 — count them, 40 — school districts.)
What’s different, Herrington said, is there are fewer teachers, librarians, school nurses, administrators, after-school programs, and reading and math tutors — “and not enough resources to keep the safety net in place.” This comes after years of spending cuts, affecting classroom size, adult education, libraries, counseling, transportation, supplies, maintenance and more. Schools continue to be hammered by declining state support, falling property tax revenues, and in many Sonoma County districts, shrinking enrollments that translate into even less state support.
And December could bring more bad news. If state revenues fail to keep pace with 2011-12 state budget forecasts, additional state cuts will affect every public school student from kindergarten to graduate school. The statewide community college system could lose another $30 million. Sonoma State alone could lose $2.3 million.
Meanwhile, K-12 schools would be compelled — again — to reduce the number of days children are engaged in learning.
Note what has happened here: When it was discovered that American kids weren’t matching the academic success of their counterparts in other nations, blue-ribbon commissions noted that students in other countries spend more time in the classroom. Trying to help California kids compete, the state mandated that students attend school 180 days a year.
Now all that is being thrown away. If the December budget trigger kicks in, many schools will be down to 167 instruction days, Herrington said. The state is also abandoning programs to reduce class size, another key indicator of student success.
Schools alone do not determine whether a youngster is successful. Success emerges from a combination of circumstances, including a stable family life, good nutrition, a safe and healthy neighborhood, health care, effective mentors and more.
If additional revenues were not one of the choices, I asked Herrington what is the one thing he would change about education today.
He thought a second and replied, “I would make sure every parent provided quality parent time with their child so they would all be readers by third grade . . . (the kids who are readers) will be successful in school.”
Third grade readers and drop-out rates are among the indicators used by Upstreams Investments, a countywide collaboration of public and private agencies that recognizes student success is everybody’s business. The latest figures from the Sonoma County Office of Education show that about 77 percent of Sonoma County students (and only 67 percent of Latino students) finish high school.
This is not good enough.
At the same time, we know that there will be no bursts of new money in the foreseeable future.
This is the hard part, isn’t it? Students, families, teachers, all of us are left to choose between resentment and moving forward as best we can.
If you’re a baby boomer, you might think about who’s going to pay for your Social Security, teach your grandkids, police your neighborhood and tend to your medical needs. We want these kids to grow up, get an education and find a job. We want these kids to be successful.
Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.