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.
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.
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
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
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
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".