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"They’re like Calcutta," a former high ranking education official says of public schools in California, the subject of the new Merrow Report documentary FIRST TO WORST. Hosted by John Merrow, the program chronicles the rise and fall of California's public school system, the largest in the nation and home to one of every eight American students.

Peter Schrag
John Mockler
Michael Kirst
Harriet Maclean
In the 1950's and 60's, California's schools were the national model. "There was a commitment to excellence," author Peter Schrag says in the film. "California was the land of new opportunity; there was wonderful historical tradition in that." Today, California's schools rank near the bottom. Since tying with Mississippi and Guam in the mid 1990's, state test scores have barely nudged upward. "We basically turned our back on schools," John Mockler, an education policy expert, relates in the film.

FIRST TO WORST explores the roots of California's current education crisis, tracing it to the anti-tax movement of the 1970's and 80's and to civil rights lawsuits that aimed to equalize school spending but resulted instead in disastrous funding limits on schools. "We really wrote off adequacy and embraced equalized mediocrity," says Michael Kirst of Stanford University.

FIRST TO WORST pays special attention to Proposition 13, the 1978 anti-tax law (still in effect) that froze property taxes on businesses and homes and, critics say, cut funding for public schools off at the knees. "We’re always on a survival level," Harriet McLean, a principal in Contra Costa, explains in FIRST TO WORST. "We’re understaffed, we’re over-crowded, and our roof leaks." McLean takes viewers on a tour of her school, which is typical of appalling conditions found in many schools throughout the state.
Richard Colvin
"I watched “First to Worst” last night and it was terrific. It made me feel that all the time I was covering education in California I’d never really looked at the big picture. The list of things that John Deasy said his kids had in Rhode Island and took for granted is exactly the list of things we now have in New Jersey and are very grateful for. Our kids really are thriving with opportunities they never would have had in California."
- Richard Lee Colvin, Hechinger Institute

Viewers of FIRST TO WORST also go inside palatial public schools in suburban communities like Orinda. In this district, well-to-do parents funnel millions of private dollars into local education foundations. More than 400 other districts (out of 1000) raise money this way, contributing to a widening gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots" and blurring the line between private and public education.

FIRST TO WORST makes clear that the problems with California's schools go beyond facilities and funding. Years of state intrusion into classroom teaching produced educational disasters in the form of teaching fads. "Whole Language" was one of them. Adopted state-wide in California in the late 1980's, it effectively tossed aside tried and true strategies for reading. Whole language and other fads combined to wreck academic achievement, and by 1994 California ranked at the bottom in national assessments. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of immigrant students arrived in California, posing a whole new set of challenges for teachers.

Today, California is trying to regain its footing. It has developed high academic standards for all students and a new system of accountability, but academic progress has been slow. On the most recent national assessment, California ranked 9th from the bottom. In per-pupil spending, the country's richest state ranks 37th. The state's newly elected governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is promising to spare schools as he goes about slashing programs to balance a budget estimated to be nearly 35 billion dollars in the red. However, whether simply maintaining the status quo in school funding will suffice is an open question.
Catherine Lhamon
Much is at stake and for the nation: California's six million students represent a sizeable portion of America's future voters, parents, and workers. "I am not going to be able to expect my car tires to be changed with any trust because of the kind of education we are providing right now," says ACLU attorney Catherine Lhamon. "It clearly matters to us all".
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