Innovation from within the system: The California student initiative example
We are generally supportive of education reform efforts, many of which are found in charter schools and other non-traditional schools within the public education system. We also recognize, however, that the role of innovators within the non-charter public education system is critically important. Online schools, charter schools, non-traditional schools, and other efforts that are outside mainstream education are clearly important to the students who attend these schools. But they also have a role that may in fact affect many more students, by creating examples and competitive pressures for other public schools. These innovators who work within the system are often overlooked. In Keeping Pace and other outlets we have discussed, for example, the importance of state virtual schools as key providers of online courses in many states. These schools are often run by the state education agency, although they sometimes operate as private non-profit organizations. They often are caught between traditional educators and education reformers. The former wonder if the state virtual schools are “taking” revenue, while the latter see the state virtual schools as too closely tied to the education establishment. In our opinion, both views are misguided and state virtual schools are a vital part of the landscape.
Similarly, innovators within districts face a landscape that appears not to know what to think of them. They sometimes draw suspicion from their public sector colleagues, while also not receiving accolades from reform advocates. The middle ground appears to be a lonely place.
It’s in this context that we are cautiously optimistic about the California student bill of rights initiative. Initiative backers note a report from UCLA that one million California students attend schools that do not offer sufficient courses for admission into University of California schools, and suggest that a remedy is a change in policy to make courses—including online –available to students who do not have access to those necessary courses. The lack of equal access to courses necessary for admission to the UC system has been recognized in the past (it was the impetus for the University of California College Prep project, which has lost funding and did not achieve its promise), but has not been solved and has in some ways fallen below the radar in a state besieged by deep budget deficits and deeper political divisions.
What’s perhaps most notable about the initiative is its source: it comes from a group of educators who are mostly from the “innovative from within” category. Dave Haglund, who is responsible for non-traditional schools as director of educational options for the Riverside Unified School District, is among the leaders involved. Others who contributed to the drafting of the initiative included district and county superintendents, faculty from higher education (including public, private, and for profit colleges), and business executives. These leaders recognize the scale of the problem, realize that the California legislature has not been able to change the policy landscape in any meaningful way, and understand that changes implemented by the legislature, in a state with the gridlock of California, are likely to be incremental.
It’s not clear to us what all of the implications of the initiative would be if it passed. We know of pockets of innovation across California—in San Diego, Orange County, and elsewhere in addition to Riverside—but it is also clear that millions of students in California don’t have access to the same opportunities that more fortunate students have. We hope that the initiative gains the signatures it needs to be placed on the ballot in November. One thing is for sure – the initiative has definitely changed the conversation in California.
For more information:
The initiative URL: http://educationforward.org
Michael Horn’s view on the initiative: http://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelhorn/2012/01/03/california-initiative-brings-breath-of-fresh-air/