When a right-leaning school board in Southern California balked at providing state-approved social studies textbooks that referenced murdered gay rights leader Harvey Milk, Gov. Gavin Newsom quickly intervened.
Newsom declared the board to be “radicalized zealots” and said, “If the school board won’t do its job by its next board meeting to ensure kids start the school year with basic materials, the state will deliver the book into the hands of children and their parents – and we’ll send the district the bill and fine them for violating state law.”
Newsom’s threats worked as the Temecula school board backed down. However, his lightning-fast crackdown on Temecula sharply contrasts with what happened three years ago on a much more important clash – whether to reopen schools shuttered due to COVID-19.
Newsom had assumed vast emergency powers to manage the pandemic, and closing schools that serve nearly 6 million students was one of the state’s earliest and most dramatic actions.
It soon became apparent, however, that the schools were not a likely venue for spreading the disease . Within months, federal health officials, parents and children’s advocates were urging that classrooms be reopened to avoid educational deterioration.
Other states reopened schools, as did many California private schools, including the one serving Newsom’s children. But California’s teacher unions balked, forcing local school officials to leave schools closed and children to cope with makeshift internet classes.
Newsom backed reopening. “I am of the firm belief that we can safely get back our children, youngest children, get them back safely into schools in small cohorts,” Newsom told reporters in early 2021. “We can get this done. We must get it done.”
Newsom Unwilling to Confront Unions
Even though Newsom offered school districts billions of dollars to reopen, schools remained largely shuttered because of continued union opposition. Newsom, who had been so quick to take unilateral actions on other pandemic-related issues and who later cracked down on Temecula, refused to forcefully intervene, apparently unwilling to confront the politically powerful unions.
Eventually schools did reopen, but by then the damage was done. Follow-up studies revealed that closures had seriously damaged educational achievement in a state whose children were already trailing those in other states.
When state academic testing resumed in 2022 after being suspended during the pandemic, it showed “significant declines in proficiency rates,” a study by the Public Policy Institute of California declared.
Prior to the pandemic, 51% of students met standards in English language arts (ELA) and it had dropped to 47%. In mathematics, proficiency declined from 40% to 33%.
“Only 35% of low-income students met state standards in ELA and 21% were proficient in math,” PPIC reported, “compared to 65% of higher-income students in ELA and 51% in math.”
While schools were closed in 2020, a civil rights lawsuit was filed against the state, alleging that closures had an inordinate effect on low-income children of color – something that PPIC and other independent researchers later confirmed.
The state is trying to get the suit tossed, contending that closures did not have the harmful effects it alleges. The suit’s advocates, however, have countered with statements from a variety of educational authorities buttressing its case.
The state Department of Education has a response to that as well. EdSource, a website devoted to California educational issues, reported recently that the department has warned educational researchers who access its data that they cannot help plaintiffs because a clause in research agreements forbids participation in any suit against the state.
In other words, the state is muzzling those who could provide expert testimony that the state’s failure to reopen schools was an educational disaster. That’s authoritarian arrogance to the 10th power.
About the Author
Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.
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