California Still at Risk

Our system of education sadly needs not simply reform, but a complete overhaul.

by / June 3, 2008

Last April marked 25 years since the seminal report "A Nation at Risk" a document that became a milestone in the history of American education.

Historian Diane Ravitch called it "the most important reform document of the 21st century." As the report alleged, after nearly two years of study by a so-called blue-ribbon commission, there was poor academic performance "at nearly every level" of the education system; and the system itself was "being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity."

After 25 years, we are more at risk and our system of education sadly needs not simply reform, but a complete overhaul.

Other nations in the new globally competitive economy have caught up to the U.S. and many like Japan, Singapore, Norway and Denmark surpass us.

Compared against 30 other top nations in a world study, we're 25th. According to ABC News "Despite billions of dollars spent in the past quarter century, the newest report finds high school graduation rates have actually dropped. Over the last 25 years, the U.S. once ranked first in graduation rates, now it ranks 21st. Math scores are also troubling."

Within the U.S., California ranks 47 th in the nation; down from 46th the year before. We lead Mississippi but trail Alaska, and Alabama. In other words California is at the bottom of the nation, which is near the bottom of the world.

Yes, it is really that bad.

According to the report from Strong American Schools, 40 percent of seniors still do not understand the math they were taught in the 8th grade. Common Core, another study group, reported that a quarter of seniors cannot identify Adolph Hitler and more than half of seniors cannot even place the occurrence of the American Civil War in the right century; a third do not know that the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of speech.

In the wake of globalization according to a two-year-old report by National Geographic, six in 10 young Americans ages 18-24 could not find Iraq on a map of the Middle East. One third could not find Louisiana on a U.S. map despite the natural disaster in New Orleans.

Governor Schwarzenegger has promised to deal with the education agenda, but for fiscal reasons has postponed dealing directly with the problems that education faces. There is no doubt that California faces tough economic times.

There is a "growing fiscal emergency," according to the Governor, but if funding future lottery revenues is not successful -- and there is not another creative solution to California's budget woes -- state parks will be shut down; tens of thousands of prisoners will be released, and our young people will feel the education cuts as well.

The funding system is indeed complex. The governor arguably recognizes this issue and has set aside monies to address funding concerns because there is a concern about how schools are funded each year. The Reason Foundation says a provision that guarantees that state education spending will always go up by at least a small amount even during economic downturns is patently indefensible.

Nonetheless, common sense argues that any cuts involving our system of education -- until we thoroughly rethink what we need in the workforce in this new global economy -- will have disastrous results, now and well into the future.

We don't have so much as just a fiscal crisis as an opportunity. California needs to rise to the demands to do something about education now.

Eger, the Van Deerlin endowed chair of communications and public policy in the School of Journalism & Media Studies at San Diego State University, is also president of the World Foundation for Smart Communities(

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