Signal: You just visited Stevenson Ranch Elementary School, which has been dealing with overcrowding problems. What do you think of the lottery system they're considering for kindergarten enrollment?
O'Connell:: It's a very good school. It's really reflective of what's happening in many of our schools today. It's a clear example of having a great principal, a great staff, teachers who are certainly committed, and an engaged community. I can see why it would be a very desirous school. Its Academic Performance Index on our accountability system the numbers for that school are off the chart. And I can understand the pressure.
I know that we have to do a good job of trying to make sure that we have adequate facilities. I'm very pleased and most appreciative of the voters who passed a record number of school bonds in 2004, passing two of the largest statewide school bond measures in the history in the country. Hopefully as time goes on, that will address and alleviate some of the overcrowding conditions that we see, and continue to see in desirable neighborhoods and desirable communities in which people like to live.
Signal: With our valley's rapid growth, it has been a challenge to build schools fast enough. The Newhall School District briefly used a multi-track, year-round calendar when there were school construction incentives to do so. Will we see any more carrots or sticks coming out of Sacramento to force districts to go year-round again?
O'Connell:: I hope not. I believe that we're in better shape today than we were before.
I'll give you a couple of statistics. One is, the voters of this state in 2004 we had 122 local school bond measures on the ballot, and the voters stepped up to the plate and passed 114 of them. The voters, again, passed two of the largest school bond measures in the history of the country. So the capacity, the facilities, are really moving the right direction. In fact, my line that I like to say sometimes in speeches is, we have gone from being appalling to adequate in terms of our school facilities. But we're able to modernize some of our modern schools.
I can remember as a kid coming over here and playing basketball at Hart High School one of the largest gymnasiums I've ever been in yet, in my life but we're able to modernize some of our older schools to bring in the right types of technology, additional facilities. Because still today, we do have an aging educational infrastructure, with half of our schools 30 years old or older. We do need to stay on top of the facilities and make sure that we have adequate space for our students.
Signal: When you were coming over to Hart, you were living in Oxnard?
O'Connell:: I grew up in Ventura County. So, not far, and I certainly know the way on Highway 126. Same as my wife.
Signal: There have been troubling reports lately of student-on-student racism at the high school level. Our valley is about 70 percent white, 21 percent Latino, 5 percent Asian and only 2 percent black. The Hart district has formed a broad-based committee to address the problem. What kind of approach would you recommend?
O'Connell:: Well, of course, these kinds of challenges that we have are not new. It's only been 50 years since the passage of Brown v. Board of Education, which really did say that we're going to end segregation in our schools. A couple of years before that, we had the Mendez-Westminster case here in California. Earl Warren took the lead in both areas, when he was governor here in California, on Mendez v. Westminster, and then when he was the United States Chief Justice back in Washington, D.C.
I think our strength is our diversity as a state, as a country. We need to make sure that we work so that people have a better understanding of each other. We've come a long way on these racial issues and racial tensions, and we're still not there yet.
We still have an achievement gap in California. Everything we do in Sacramento at the Department of Education, we try to find ways to address and to help close and help narrow that achievement gap. Because the reality is, when you look at test scores for some of our various ethnic subgroups English language learners, our Latino students, our African American students, students from low socioeconomic areas they do lag behind their peers. We need to make sure that we do a better job of designing programs that try to help to improve the academic achievement level for these students, as well as promote greater tolerance at the school site.
Signal: You've borne some criticism for developing plans that essentially drive all students toward a college education. Some say not enough is being done to provide vocational training for kids who will never go to college. How do you reconcile the goal of "closing the achievement gap" with meeting the needs of kids who aren't college-bound?
O'Connell:: That's exactly how you do close the achievement gap. We need to have more rigor and more relevance and a more challenging curriculum for our students who are taking our career and technical education classes. If we can do that, while we're at the same time preparing students for a career and, careers for the future are much more challenging than the careers today. I think it's our role as leaders to try to have a vision of what types of skills people are going to need, not just for next year and the rest of this decade, but looking to the next decade, as well.
I was having lunch with a friend yesterday and he told me, a high-tech firm, over 80 percent of his positions it's a big company, over 1,000 employees here in California require the knowledge of Algebra II. All of our students now are required to take algebra, and I believe that is appropriate. We want these students to have problem-solving skills. All of our students have to take at least have to take at least three years of English, and I believe that's clearly appropriate, and I encourage even four. We need all of our workers, our work force, to be able to communicate, to be able to write. We need to make sure that our graduates are well versed in technology. Because clearly that's the key to our being able to compete not just with other states, but to be able to compete in the global market, as well. So, I'm a big strong supporter of career and technical education.
In fact, next month I'll be bringing to the state Board of Education, for the first time, standards in career and technical education so we know what skills we want our students to know (and) when we want them to know it.
Signal: What are they going to say?
O'Connell:: More rigor, more relevance, more challenge. I'll give you a very specific example. To be a sheet metal worker in California, it's a four- to five-year apprenticeship program. You need to know geometry, algebra, basic trigonometry. You need to know technical reading and technical writing to be a sheet metal worker. These are well paying jobs. They usually bring benefits with them; you can be a respected member of the community. ... These jobs are important. They have to have status in the community. And our job as educators is to make sure that our students have the skills necessary to be productive in our society.
Signal: Recognizing that the jobs of today are different, the local high school district is looking to expand an exchange program with China and offer Asian language courses in the high schools. Do you think that's a good approach, or should the district go a different direction?
O'Connell:: I think it's a great approach. If I can put my "let's have a strong economy" hat on here, in California, that's going to be a market that's going to develop unlike any that we've ever seen before. If we thought taking advantage of our proximity on the Pacific rim to engage in trade with Japan and Korea was important, just wait till a China market really opens up for us. That's where we need to placing additional trade offices, and to have a better understanding, a better awareness, of their needs, of the services that we can provide, that's going to really help our economy here in California.
Signal: A few years ago, College of the Canyons started going to the business community and talking to executives to find out what their specific job needs are. COC developed a workforce training program, and then partnered with several four-year universities to bring degree and credential programs to the community college. Now, COC is preparing to build a satellite campus on the east side of town. What's it going to take for the Santa Clarita Valley to get a four-year university of our own, or should we expect to see more of these partnerships with other schools?
O'Connell:: I think clearly, short-term, you're going to see additional satellite campuses. I authored the legislation that brought Cal State University, Channel Islands, online. (It's a) very successful campus now. My vision for Channel Islands in the next five, 10, 15 years is, it's going to really be the pearl of the system. It's a beautiful facility. It has the capacity to take more and more students; it's wired to utilize technology; and it's a great setting. It looks like an Ivy League school nestled in among the hills of Camarillo, and so that's going to be a great campus.
You're lucky that College of the Canyons does have a good reputation here for working with the business community, working with industry, and really turning that paradigm upside down, so it's not just schools cranking out potential employees that may or may not have the skills necessary to contribute to the work force. We've turned that paradigm upside down, and College of the Canyons has been a leader in that, and telling the schools what skills you should be teaching; what aptitudes our graduates (should) know so that they can become contributing members of the work force, their first day on the job.
Signal: Gov. Schwarzenegger's budget proposes a $2.9-billion increase for schools 6.1 percent, which is quite a bit more than everything else is getting. Yet, we hear people say that's not enough.
O'Connell:: That's not enough.
Signal: So, you're on the list.
O'Connell:: It breaks a commitment to the students and the parents of California that the governor made 14 months ago and I was in the room when he said, "If you help me balance the budget for this current year, we'll slash $2 billion from education; help me identify where some of those savings may be potentially realized. Then, I will make sure that we fully fund Proposition 98, the voter-passed initiative" wisely so "to try to return academic excellence back to California."
Regrettably, the governor is not keeping his word on this issue. The six-point-something-percent increase is not simply getting its way into the schools. Some of that is teacher credentialling, some of that is for the Department of Education it's not just for our school districts.
What the governor's budget does do for school districts is, it provides a cost-of-living adjustment for the schools, and it also provides money for new students entering into our school system both of which we appreciate. But it's not going to create more class-size reduction. It's not going to help us adequately compensate our teachers and our other professionals at the school site. It's not going to help us buy the additional textbooks that we need, more computers that we need, nor deliver more services to those student populations that we talked about earlier, to help us close the achievement gap.
It's a budget that relies too much on higher education, on new fees. To me, that's a tax, and that's something that we ought to try to resist additional fees on our UC and CSU and community college students.
I'm hopeful that perhaps when the May revise comes in, that the governor can be creative and keep his word, keep his commitment, and fully fund the voter-passed initiative, Proposition 98. That's critical for us.
Signal: How can Proposition 98 be messed with? Isn't it a constitutional guarantee of school funding?
O'Connell:: It is. There is a provision to provide some flexibility and it was triggered last year that with two-thirds votes in both houses of the Legislature and the governor's signature, you can suspend that. And then you can owe the money to the schools at a later date when the economy becomes stronger.
Signal: That's what was done last year?
O'Connell:: Last year, and it's been done a couple of times before, so that we don't decimate some of our public safety services. Nobody (in education) wants to do that. I mean, we know that. Plus, we need to make sure that we can adequately fund for seniors, aged, blind and disabled, and poor people. We don't want to throw people out on the streets. But we do want to make sure we have a well-educated citizenry. To me, the best way to invest in the economy in the state of California is, you invest in public education.
Signal: If Jack O'Connell were king, what would he cut in order to put more money into schools?
O'Connell:: Since I'm not king, it's difficult to answer. But I would try to identify in some other areas where there might be some cost savings, and then I would go out and seek additional revenue.
We need to make sure that we have appropriate revenue so that we're not shortchanging our schools. When you shortchange public education, you're shortchanging the future. We told the schools 14 months ago led with the governor we have all his quotes, and it's on tape, and he says he's not keeping his commitment but we need to make sure that he does keep that commitment.
We have 1,000 school districts in California. They have made decisions during the last year contractual decisions with their teachers and their paraeducators, administrators they've made their class-size-averaging decisions made based upon full funding of Proposition 98. And to force them now to have mid-year cuts in addition to additional cuts they've had to make in the past just isn't fair. That's not going to get us back to where we should be. We're eighth from the bottom of all 50 states in terms of funding per student.
Signal: How did we get there?
O'Connell:: From not stepping up to the plate and not passing necessary measures to make sure public education is adequately supported.
When I graduated from high school we went back and looked up some numbers we were $400 more per student above the national average. Today, we're more than $600 below the national average. That's a shift of $1,000 less into the classroom. That's $30,000 less per teacher, per classroom, available in terms of funding at the school district level.
Signal: We hear complaints about unfunded categorical program mandates. The Hart district, for instance, is required to fully fund special education even though it isn't fully reimbursed. The last federal money for special education went to solving the budget deficit, not for special education. Can our school districts expect to see more funding for these categorical programs?
O'Connell:: The answer is yes. Will it be as much as they want? The answer is no.
Signal: Will there be enough to cover them?
O'Connell:: Some yes, some no. Special education is probably the best example. In fact, there's a federal law that says that the federal government will pay 40 percent the cost of educating that special education student. They've never come close. Today, they're about halfway there. When President Clinton was in, they were around 15 (or) 16 percent. With President Bush, we're at about 20 percent. So we're slowly moving in the right direction, but we're still not there yet. We do need some help from the federal government.
Signal: You've been on both sides of the wall. In the Legislature, you had quite a bit of power as chairman of the Senate Education Committee. With the governor and the Legislature making the finance decisions, what can you do, as the state schools chief, about school funding?
O'Connell:: Part of it is ... the pulpit, and making sure that public opinion is heard in Sacramento. And I do oversee the Department of Education. We literally make thousands of decisions a week, affecting our 6.3 million students. I'm also a UC regent; I'm also a CSU trustee; and I take those roles very seriously. I try to make sure that we have a seamless educational decision. I sponsor legislation to try to help our students in school.
I'm very proud of the fact that when I was in the state Senate, I was the author of our class-size reduction program, and I really work hard to try to protect that and make that work. Gov. Wilson was great in stepping up to the plate, former Gov. Wilson, to make sure that program was funded.
I show up at the budget committees now. I'm on the other side of the table, you're right, and I'll be there again this week, testifying on Senate Budget Committee issues. A part of it is, you're on the outside making sure that the members of the Legislature know what the public thinks, feels, and what's important.
Signal: How is the political landscape in Sacramento? We've got a Republican governor, but a Democratic majority in the Legislature; can the Democrats get together strongly and vociferously enough to carry your message about education funding?
O'Connell:: I believe the answer is yes. And, education should not be a partisan issue. That's in the state Constitution I think there were some visionary folks who said my position would be a nonpartisan position, and that's the way I certainly approach it. I think people know it's not a secret that I'm a registered Democrat, but when Republican members of the Legislature invite me to come to a town hall meeting, meet with their locally elected school board folks, or see a program that excels or a program we might be able to help, I do. I spend just as much time helping my Republican friends and colleagues in the Legislature as I do Democratic friends and colleagues. Education should not be a partisan issue.
This is an issue we should come together on, determine adequacy for funding. And I think that's a legitimate discussion to have. What level of funding do we need to have so that we're no longer eighth from the bottom in terms of all 50 states in per-capita funding?
Signal: You're holding schools accountable for performance, irrespective of the fact that they're not getting enough money. What are your goals with accountability?
O'Connell:: We've really done a lot in the last decade. It really began with Gov. Wilson when the economy started to turn around during his last couple of years in office. But we have adopted world-class content standards very, very challenging. The independent Fordham Foundation, not exactly a liberal progressive think tank, came through and they gave California a letter grade "A" on our standards. We were one of three states to receive the letter grade "A."
We do have an accountability system. You can come to my Web page today (www.cde.ca.gov), and you can look up your neighborhood schools such as the school I was at (Friday) morning, and you'll see that that school, I'm sure, is a 10/10, which is as good as it gets. So, we're holding our schools accountable.
In fact, we don't have just one accountability system; we have two. The federal government also imposes an accountability system on us under No Child Left Behind. It's a different methodology that's used I don't think it's as accurate a portrayal of the performance of the school, but we live with that. So, we're holding our schools to a very high standard. We're holding them accountable. The business community wanted that six or seven years ago now, and they were right. And so we did it.
And now we do have an assessment system that's aligned to our standards. Our instruction and materials now, probably 90 to 95 percent, are aligned to our standards. Seven or eight years ago, a lot of my teacher friends would say, "Jack, should we teach to the standards, or should we teach to the test?" You don't hear that anymore. Today, it's one in the same.
Signal: What do you say to people who allege that too much time is still spent "teaching to the test?"
O'Connell:: I think that was a valid observation three, four, five years ago. Today it's not. Today our statewide tests are aligned to our standards. I would also say three or five years ago, we had too many tests. That's one reason why we've shortened some of our tests; we've eliminated some; we've shortened the high school exit exam by a third; we've eliminated the Golden State exam, and we've cut some other test time, as well.
Signal: What happens to schools that don't make the grade?
O'Connell:: We have a very strict accountability system and we have intervention programs. If you're not making the grade after two years, then we get involved. ... We come in and try to work collaboratively with a local community, people from Sacramento, people from local school districts, to make suggestions.
There's additional money available not as much as we'd like to try to help some of these schools and school districts that need interventions. Eventually, if we can't turn these schools around in five years, there are some requirements that you can reconfigure, reconstitute the school; the principal is no longer the principal; and it's just really a black mark on that school.
Signal: Gov. Schwarzenegger has proposed several reforms, such as replacing the tenure system with merit pay. What's your position?
O'Connell:: Most of the governor's proposals are not new. The merit pay issue there's nothing that precludes a school district from imposing merit pay today, if the school district, through collective bargaining, and the appropriate agencies, the teachers association, wants to sign off on that, they can do that today.
My concern is, if you try to do it teacher-by-teacher, classroom-by-classroom a couple of other states have done it with mixed results if you do it that way, you're not encouraging teachers to work collaboratively. You're almost in competition for additional money with the teacher next to you. And I want teachers working together. That's what is in the best interest of the students. I want teachers sharing best practices, sharing what resources they have, sharing the strengths and weaknesses for the students so that we can address those weaknesses.
We've had a merit pay proposal on the books for a number of years. It began with Gov. Davis; it was a major school reform issue of his that some didn't like, but I agreed with his proposal, so that if you have enough money, the teachers and the classified personnel and the administrators at the school site received an additional stipend. So, we had merit pay based on the school site, which I think is appropriate. I don't think you want to have individual teachers competing with one another at a school. That's not in the best interest of the students.
Signal: Should there be some method for getting rid of teachers who aren't doing the job?
O'Connell:: Yes, and we have that. You can get rid of teachers today even if they're tenured. That's something that I think school districts should be doing. But I also believe that if we didn't cut back on our professional development programs for teachers, we'd be able to help and provide more assistance for these teachers.
We changed the teacher evaluation process several years ago so we made it much more like a college and university it's called a PAR program (Peer Assistance and Review). I think it's better when you have other teachers helping to evaluate their colleagues.
Signal: You're pursuing universal preschool for 4-year-olds. If there isn't enough money to fund current programs, how is that going to happen?
O'Connell:: We'll have to identify a funding source. Not one nickel from our existing school budget should be devoted today to additional preschool, before-school programs. We need to make sure that we do identify a new funding source. Let's have public debate. I'm hopeful the Legislature will pass a measure working with the governor. If not, we're prepared to do an initiative.
Signal: School safety there's been very little communication between the state or federal offices of Homeland Security and the high school district. What can we expect from Sacramento in the way of training and procedures to thwart a Columbine-type incident from within, or a terrorist attack from the outside?
O'Connell:: There is a requirement that each school have a school safety program. There is a requirement that it be updated periodically. I'm actually trying to get additional revenue for school safety from the federal government under some of the Homeland Security money that's available.
And we need to make sure that we have counselors at the school. To me, one of the tragedies of these budget cutbacks is when you have a one counselor per 1,000 students. I mean, that's just not fair to the counselors, and the students' needs are not being served. If we could have more counselors, more intervention programs, more nurses on schools to help students with some of their emotional problems, that's how you really prevent the Columbines from happening.
Signal: What else is on your plate for the next couple of months? Do you have any ballot initiatives up your sleeve?
O'Connell:: No, not today. But certainly, I'm very pleased we've been able to reduce the paperwork burden on school districts, a little over 10 percent, and I want to do more. We've asked school districts over the years for unnecessary and duplicative information, so we've done a major change from Sacramento, so we have actually reduced the data request by 10 percent, and one of my goals is more.
I want to make sure that we have a nutritious student population, a student population that's in better shape. The eating habits, the physical habits in terms of physical activity that we develop later in life, we really learn early on. We're going to work hard on those kinds of issues, as well.
And then finally, I'm the biggest advocate you'll ever meet for class-size reduction. It's so important that if we can properly invest in the future and make public education a real priority, as I believe the citizens of this state believe, then we'll be able to have discussions about additional class-size reduction, as well.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.