New school of thought needed to save education

Ah, the 1960s! Kids had good times! That nostalgic-but-true statement — one of the hundreds of online comments written in response to our recent series on K-12 education — is a great summation of the hits suffered by California’s public schools.

Because for all the social and political upheaval of the ’60s, this much could be said for the “old school” public school system:

Students could catch a bus every day, to and from campus and their parents weren’t charged a cent.

No one argued that standard electives like auto shop and agriculture and music were “luxuries” that could be cut from the curriculum.

Students went to school nine months per year.

If they chose — or more likely, if their parents insisted — students could enroll in summer “enrichment” classes like astronomy, drama, creative writing and art.

Compare that to today:

Free bus transportation? A thing of the past in a growing number of districts.

Electives? The choices are becoming increasingly limited.

Summer school? If it’s offered at all, it’s generally confined to remedial classes for students who need the credits to graduate.

And here’s what we find most reprehensible: Some California school districts — including Paso Robles and Templeton — can no longer afford to educate students for 180 days per year.

That’s an appalling inequity. We are saying, in effect, that students in District A have the opportunity for 180 days of instruction but, well, too bad for students in District B. We can only manage to provide them with 175 (or 172 or 170) days of schooling.

If a school funding initiative doesn’t pass in November, it will get even worse; some struggling districts will have little choice but to cut three weeks from the school year.

What lessons will students miss if they lose 15 days’ worth of instruction?

“A Tale of Two Cities” ... the civil rights movement ... cell division ... right angles ... the California mission era? If anything, California should be adding days to the school year, to ensure our students remain competitive in today’s global economy.

Yet in Sacramento, there is serious talk of allowing districts to lop three weeks off the school year and to drop the high school graduation requirement from two years of science to one.

Talk about dumbing down the curriculum.

Unless we want education in California to be irreparably damaged, we must find a solution, quickly. If we allow the quality of education in our state to continue to deteriorate, we will not only deprive children of the opportunities they need to succeed throughout their lives, we will also signal business and industry that California is not the place for them.

And who could blame them? If we don’t care enough to educate the workforce of the future, why should they bother to invest here?

Yet instead of defending schools, many of us would rather shake our fists at Big Government — and it doesn’t particularly matter which arm of government — and vow not to give any more money to the state, for schools or any other purpose.

Others continue to offer alternatives to the current public school system — school vouchers is a popular idea — even though such a revolutionary change would take years and probably numerous lawsuits to enact.

That’s too long to wait.

Certainly, take a look at long-term solutions. But in the meantime, we must do something to solve the immediate crisis, because as bad as things have been over the past few years, they will grow far worse if we do nothing.

As an example, if the governor’s school tax initiative doesn’t pass in November, K-12 schools in San Luis Obispo County will collectively lose another $15 million. That’s about equal to the total amount they’ve lost over the past five years.

If that happens, students will be deprived of far more than an auto shop class or free busing or an occasional field trip.

Core classes like science, math and language will suffer. The length of the school year will shrink. Class sizes will increase even more. Counselors and school nurses and librarians and other vital support staff could all but disappear from school campuses.

Over the coming months, we will be hearing more about the school funding measures on the November ballot; we strongly urge readers to study them with open minds.

If we do not find a way to provide schools with an infusion of cash, we will shortchange a generation of children — children we will depend on to take our places as nurses, educators, lab techs, bankers, business owners, auto mechanics, city council and school board members and, yes, taxpayers.

And in shortchanging them, we will be shortchanging ourselves as well.

Editorials are the opinion of The Tribune.