I love the Houston Chronicle story about the modest suburban Texas grocery store that defeated the Soviet Union and ended the Cold War. Seriously, any museum that commemorates the fall of communism needs to have photos on the wall of Ronald Reagan, Lech Walesa, Pope John Paul II, and the former Randall’s store in the Clear Lake section of Houston.
In 1989, two years before the collapse of the Evil Empire, Boris Yeltsin had been elected to the Supreme Soviet and the parliament. During a visit to Johnson Space Center, he took a short detour to see a typical American grocery store. He was stunned by it. There’d be a revolution if Russians saw this, he reportedly said to his Soviet colleagues. (It’s particularly amazing given how dowdy those 1980s-era U.S. grocery stores are compared to today’s marvels.)
“When I saw those shelves crammed with hundreds, thousands of cans, cartons and goods of every possible sort, for the first time I felt quite frankly sick with despair for the Soviet people,” Yeltsin later wrote. Yeltsin left the Communist Party, became president and — despite his many obvious flaws — oversaw the end of the totalitarian regime. “You can blame those frozen Jell-O Pudding pops,” according to the Chronicle writer.
At the time, Russian grocery stores had long lines where people waited to buy whatever was available out of brown boxes in dismal stores with empty shelves. I’d guess that there were communist apparatchiks — really smart ones, too — who had reform plans to deal with the problems. The Soviet government could spend more money on grocery stores! They could change the management or create a new inventory system!
We know that’s laughable, right? The problem was the very foundation of it all. You can’t change a bureaucratically controlled, monopoly system sufficiently to assure that it does even a tolerable job providing “customers” with goods and services. For starters, there are no customers, only subjects. You have to trash the entire state-run grocery system and let a market-based alternative do the rest. Even Yeltsin and his colleagues figured that one out. (Pennsylvanians haven’t figured that out regarding their money-losing state-run liquor stores, but I digress.)
I always think of that Chronicle story whenever I write about California’s (and the nation’s) rotten-to-the-core public-school system. The latest lawsuit, filed this week in Los Angeles County Superior Court, describes a system that would be intolerable if the people who suffered from it the most had any real clout — and knew that there was an alternative way of doing things.
Two influential law firms have sued the state on behalf of current and former students and teachers at poor-performing schools in Los Angeles, Stockton, and Inglewood. The lawsuit accuses the government of failing to assure basic literacy levels in California public schools, thus undermining the state constitution’s education guarantees. It offers yet another window into the way many public schools are run. It details classes where around half the students don’t have basic reading skills, examples of fifth graders taught using kindergarten materials, and teachers who “are forced to rely on audio and video content to provide students access to other subjects.” The state has previously identified an urgent need to deal with literacy issues, but has never implemented the plan, per the suit.
“In California, up to one-third of inmates read below the third-grade level, and up to half of all inmates read below the seventh-grade level,” according to the lawsuit. “Such students are pushed out or excluded from school and end up, illiterate, in the criminal justice system. In a cruel irony, it is only while incarcerated that some young people learn to read.”
This public-school-to-prison pipeline is real and is absolutely appalling. But California Democrats, who constantly bray about the plight of the poor, aren’t about to take on the wealthy teachers’ unions that maintain the status quo. The state will never reform its school system even though 43 percent of the state budget (plus massive local bond spending) is earmarked for K-14 spending. The reason is pretty obvious. The schools are publicly funded. All the key decisions are made by bureaucrats and union-owned legislators. I rest my case.
Charter schools are among the few bright spots in the bigger cities. But massive school systems such as Los Angeles Unified School District spend inordinate time and resources tormenting those publicly funded alternative schools, which they view as a competitor for scarce dollars. Charters can only do so much given the poorly educated kids that often are dumped on them. The whole system operates like a giant make-work program and pension provider for teachers and school administrators (and, ultimately, prison guards, it seems). So it lumbers along as is, year after year.
I doubt that anything will change because of the suit, but it’s always worth spotlighting some horrors that few Californians know about. In the 2014 Vergara decision, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu put the public-school establishment into a tizzy after he tossed as unconstitutional the state’s system of tenure and other teacher protections. The system “shocks the conscience,” he wrote, by protecting “grossly ineffective” teachers who harm the future prospects of poor kids.
Based on expert testimony in the case, Treu noted that 1 percent to 3 percent of California teachers fit that grossly ineffective description, which means that 2,750 to 8,250 are having “a direct, real, appreciable, and negative impact on a significant number of California students, now and well into the future….” It was an eye-opening case, but the court of appeal overturned Treu’s ruling and the California Supreme Court upheld the reversal. Back to business as usual.
In 2015, we learned that some public high schools are so poorly run that they couldn’t even handle basic class scheduling. Kids were often left twiddling their thumbs in “fake” classes. As the Los Angeles Times reported on a legal settlement, problems at one high school “were more widespread, and many students across California have missed days, weeks or months of learning time because they were sitting in courses without academic content or merely let out early.”
Note that it took legal action to get the system to do its most basic job of scheduling students in classes they need to learn and graduate. When is the last time you had to sue your grocery store to force it to provide fresh milk or meats?
Let’s face it, too: Even the best public schools tend to be mediocre at best. My friend Lance Izumi of the Pacific Research Institute produced a fine book explaining why middle-class suburban schools are Not As Good As You Think.
One day, perhaps, America will have a leader who wanders into a private school that serves poor students and sees what can be accomplished — and has Yeltsin-like despair for students who are stuck in horrible schools where they aren’t even getting basic literacy skills. Maybe then we can shut down the current Soviet-like system and let an energetic private market take its place.