Mick Founts has served as the San Joaquin County Superintendent of Schools for about seven months. But in that time, he has seen hundreds of teachers and other school staff lose their jobs due to budget cuts. He’s seen class sizes swell to out-of-compliant rates, and watched per-student funding from the state decline.
“There is no other industry that has been hit with the economic devastation that schools have been, and has increased the quality of its product, even when using test scores as the single, and some would say, inappropriate measure,” Founts said, summing up the last calendar year.
Will things change in 2011?
Even before new Gov. Jerry Brown made his recent budget announcement, the county’s top education leader recently answered a series of questions via e-mail on the state of the county’s education climate for education reporter Jennifer Bonnett. Here is what he had to say about the past, present and future.
Q: When it comes to its schools, what is San Joaquin County most proud of?
A: Schools in San Joaquin County have so much to be proud of in respect to meeting the needs of their students. It is impossible not to be proud when one attends events like our county spelling bee contest, Academic Decathlon, science fair, Academic Pentathlon, Honors Band and choir concerts, mock trial competition, A-plus awards, Teacher of the Year ceremonies, new school dedications, scholarship awards ceremonies, Dinner with the Scientist and school graduations.
Q: Schools have weathered a financial storm over the last few years. Do you think it’s going to improve with the new governor? Why or why not?
A: Gov. Brown, in his first two terms from 1975 to 1983, faced similar challenges.
On the governor’s campaign website it stated that he would support complete flexibility for the base funding related to what the state expects students to know. He states that he supports extra funding for English-language learners and other challenged student populations. The website states that the new governor will extend the flexibility that charter schools enjoy to local schools and school districts. He states that he supports simplification of the Education Code.
As for state testing, he states that he supports reducing testing in scope and testing time, and that tests should not measure factoids as much as understanding.
Will the new governor positively impact our schools and the funding of our schools? I guess it really gets down to whether he can do what he campaigned for.
Q: In your experience, was 2010 the worse for education layoffs?
A: Layoffs were horrible in 2010, not for just teachers, but for the entire educational community. Teachers, instructional support staff, administrators, clerical support, facility employees and transportation workers are all being called on to do more, when they were already doing more than full-time jobs.
We know that children do better when they are surrounded by quality adults, and when they have multiple settings and opportunities to learn. Layoffs limit our children’s opportunities to be positively impacted by quality adults. Layoffs limit our children’s opportunities to experience art, music, physical education, technology, counseling, science, special education, language arts, foreign language, mathematics — a total educational experience. Layoffs simply hurt our children.
Layoffs hurt our community. Education is the major employer in this county. When schools are hit by layoffs, business is hurt. Construction stops, because our employees cannot buy homes, in fact, they lose their homes.
Q: In general, how can schools better prepare for budget shortfalls?
A: There used to be a time when districts could adequately plan for budget issues; this is no longer the case. California schools are funded at the bottom of schools in our nation; yet, we have one of the largest economies, even in this tough economic time, in the world.
The state continues to deficit revenue limits, defer cash payments to districts into the following fiscal year, “borrow” funds from schools, under fund the construction of school facilities, cut funding to special-needs children, fail to fully fund transportation of our children to school and more.
District board members and their superintendents are then the “bad guys” in the eyes of parents who just want an adequate education for their children; these board members and superintendents cannot better prepare, more than they have been doing.
There comes a time when doing “more with less” is not possible and we start doing “less with less.” We always hear that “education is a priority;” perhaps our legislature and governor should truly act on that priority.
Q: Another hot-topic is raising test scores. How can local schools do this? Do you have examples of local success stories?
A: For the most part, test scores have steadily risen in the county. When one looks at a majority of the districts, especially since the myopic advent of using tests scores as the single factor to judge schools, our county schools have steadily increased in respect to those scores.
The real question is why are schools evaluated by a single measure such as these scores. Closing the achievement gap is important, but it is ironic that the scores continue to increase, but universities and employers continue to say that our students are not ready for college or the workforce.
Our state dictates everything from textbook usage, teacher credentialing, school site construction, length of school day, curriculum and much more. Perhaps the preoccupation with testing, augmented by the lack of adequate funding, thus resulting in the elimination of other essential academic areas such as the arts, physical education and career education, is actually becoming a detriment to our children and to our employers.
Q: One of the budget fallouts in the 2010-11 school year in area schools was spike in class sizes, forcing many districts to face sanctions from the state. Do you see a solution to this issue?
A: There is always the debate as to whether class-size reduction really matters in respect to academic achievement. Ask any teacher who had 20 children in a class and who now has 38.
As a former teacher who had both, I know that fewer students means that I can know each child, give each child positive attention, provide more individualized attention, deal with discipline issues in a more individual manner, make contacts to parents, and do more innovative activities.
Will increased budgets provide the solution to class size issues? Perhaps the state should provide adequate funds to districts, and then give total flexibility to those districts to decide how they want to spend their money.
Some may choose to reduce class size. Some may choose to increase transportation. Others may choose to fund science camp experiences.
I believe that it is important to let districts know where they need to be in respect to what children know, understand, and are able to do, but then let locally elected school board decide the specific path that they will take, in partnership with their superintendent, in reaching these goals.
Q: How will you, as superintendent of county schools, lead education through 2011?
A: I am fortunate to be an elected superintendent. Our SJCOE team has many priorities. We provide service to the local districts in the areas of special education, business services, technology, migrant education, science camp, support for specific schools and their staff, training and credentials for administrators, training and credentials for teachers and so much more.
In other words, I have the opportunity to provide service to the educational community, talk about topics in several free and open venues, and provide concrete examples of what I believe education should look like.