The Sorry State of California Public Education

Yesterday, I was the lucky recipient of a survey by the San Mateo Union High School District. Registered voters living in this district will likely see a new bond measure or their next ballot: a proposal for $400 million in bonds for high school facilities. The measure will tack on a negligible cost to property taxes—less than 2 basis points. The measure is probably not a bad idea. Interest rates are low. San Mateo County’s credit rating, given that it is one of the most robust economies in the country, is solid. The cost is easily digested by the VERY asset-rich component of the county—the owners of real estate. And, better-looking high schools won’t hurt property values.


On the other hand, I’m not going to turn down this opportunity to criticize California’s public school system.


Right here in our very own, very rich San Mateo, the well-funded bond-rich College of San Mateo campus sits on 153 acres of prime hilltop real estate with a view of the San Francisco Bay. The real estate is so prime that it is a few minutes by car from the mega mansions of Hillsborough and the smaller but manicured homes of San Mateo. On weekends, the college hosts a farmers’ market. And the facility itself boasts a planetarium, a stadium, a 400-meter track with a synthetic rubber surface, separate baseball and softball fields…you see my point? These facilities were funded by bonds just like the bonds proposed by the San Mateo High School district. The bonds were issued prior to the financial crisis of 2008 and proceeds (which were invested by the County Treasurer) declined in value before they were deployed.


Most notably, while the facilities may be state of the art, the education offered is not a perfect match for the needs of local industry. While the degree offerings include AA degrees in Engineering, Computer Science, Math and Physics, these are just four out of 94 Associate degrees offered. With all that money raised, it does not seem that the schools are listening to the needs of the community. The Bay Area needs extensive programs in Data Science, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Programming in several different languages, self-directed learning programs, Electrical Engineering, and Applied Physics, among others. It seems that if those in charge of the schools are going to be ambitious in terms of facilities (and the fancy rubber surface of their fancy track), they should have the same ambitions with their curriculum.


This kind of education mismatch between the industrial needs of the Bay Area and the priorities (or lack of) of the public education system is adding to the problem of having to import talent from elsewhere (who drive up real estate prices) at the expense of the home-grown population.


There may be reasonable explanations for this. It doesn’t matter. Bond measures in the hundreds of millions of dollars deserve more than excuses and explanations. Nicer facilities don’t buy a better education. Moreover, San Mateo County collected $2.6 billion in property taxes in the fiscal year ending on June of 2018. That number should rise in the fiscal year that is ending this month. A large portion of those taxes fund public schools throughout the county. The questionable quality of public education may not be due to a lack of funds.


Someone, deep inside the opacity of school administration, needs to make the decision. Here’s my suggestion: before focusing on reducing education to the least common denominator, teaching to the test, emphasizing special needs at the expense of cultivating giftedness, and encouraging teachers to take over the political process, how about focus efforts a little differently? How about a coordinated concerted effort to encourage the young population who lives here, through interesting curriculum and inspired teaching, to investigate the sciences deeply and to learn the basics that will set them up for the engineering intensive jobs our dynamic economy creates? That way, the employees the Bay Area has to import today can be replaced by home-grown talent tomorrow.