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California Exceptionalism Is Not All Sunshine and Flowers

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On this blog, Charles Kerchner and I write often about what we call California Exceptionalism: our notion that many K-12 conditions, politics, and policies in our home state contrast sharply with patterns in the rest of the country.  Kerchner first sketched the idea nearly a year ago in the print edition of Education Week, and most of the time we focus on the bright side.

But this week Brenda Iasavoli's excellent reporting in The Hechinger Report reminds us that California is often exceptional in some pretty sad ways.  Iasavoli reports on California's dearth of high-school counselors:

California ranks worst in the nation when it comes to providing guidance counselors, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250 to 1. In California, the ratio was 1,016 to 1 for the 2010-2011 school year, the latest for which data is available.

Thumbnail image for California-is-often.jpgShe reports on a heart-breaking example of how lack of access to basic advising creates barriers to graduation for many students.  This is especially a problem for children from low-income families and young people in foster care, students who are more likely to bounce from school to school and never even see a counselor who can help them get classes they need.

This lack of counselors is the legacy of two of California's more dubious exceptions.  First, the lasting impact of Proposition 13, the property tax limitation initiative which since 1978 has starved schools of tax revenues, and driven the state into the lowest ranks of per-pupil spending nationally.  While teachers have fought successfully to maintain nationally competitive salaries, class sizes have grown larger and support staff like librarians, school nurses, and counselors have dwindled.  The California Budget Project has been reliably documenting this pattern for years.

Other states certainly underfund education, but the states near California in the rankings don't have this state's great wealth.  While our slow recovery from recession is beginning to pump more money into California schools, as Kerchner explained last week, we still have a long way to go just to make it to average.

The Hechinger Report story also calls attention to a second California exception, this one driven by the state's unusual demographics.  Despite the state's wealth, the Public Policy Institute of California has documented our large numbers of low-income and transient families and children.  For decades, those children have been falling through the cracks in exactly the ways Iasavoli describes.  Gov. Jerry Brown's school finance reform, the Local Control Funding Formula, began this year to target money to the schools that serve those students, but it will take years for California schools to build the capacity necessary to serve them well.

This is not just a California challenge, of course.  As the Washington Post and other newspapers reported this week, "The Southern Education Foundation reports that 51 percent of students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in the 2012-2013 school year were eligible for the federal program that provides free and reduced-price lunches."  Those kids will be more likely to need guidance counselors to help them navigate their way to graduation.

The problem has gotten some helpful attention lately, as reported in the print edition of Education Week: the new "College Advising Corps" is sending recent college graduates into some low-income high schools. "They work alongside high school counselors with the goal of improving the number of first-generation college-going, low-income, underrepresented students who apply to, enter, and complete college."

Check out California, folks.  We have an exceptional education system (in the good sense), but we also need some exceptional help.

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