California Charter Schools

FILE — In this Aug. 21, 2019 file photo Gov. Gavin Newsom takes questions from second graders during his visit to the Paradise Ridge Elementary School in Paradise, Calif.

SAN DIEGO — California may be the most populous state in the country. But it is not always the sharpest knife in the drawer.

We can blame state lawmakers who are always hatching grand schemes about how to make the world better — when they ought to just concentrate on how to do their jobs better.

One of the latest legislative follies is a bill now making its way to the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom that would prohibit public and charter schools in California from expelling, or even suspending, students who disrupt the learning process or defy the authority of teachers, administrators and other school officials.

Sure, that’s a swell idea. Let students know they can’t be punished for misbehavior. What could go wrong?

Let’s take a step back. The start of a new school year gives us the chance to reflect on how the Golden State managed to fail education — and why the subject is so difficult for lawmakers to master.

There are three main reasons for our troubles.

  • California isn’t shy about operating under the principle that schools exist for the benefit of the adults who work there, and not the young people who learn there. The most powerful — and most feared — union in the state is the California Teachers Association, which directs Democratic lawmakers. The best interests of educators are always top of mind, while the interests of students are often an afterthought. What teachers want, they get. What they oppose, they kill.
  • Republicans destroyed the political system when they handed it to Democrats in the 1990s. The GOP scratched one racist and nativist itch after another with anti-Latino ballot initiatives — which woke the giant and made the Republican Party brand toxic with a group that makes up 40 percent of the state’s population. Now even mediocre Democrats can get elected to the Legislature. And once there, they can pass the craziest bills, without a single GOP vote.
  • Democratic legislators tend to misdiagnose a problem and then they aggressively treat it with a solution that goes too far, does more damage, and creates more problems. They prefer the easy fix to any prolonged remedy that might create more conflict or bring ugly realities to the surface. And once they start down this road, they won’t turn back, since that would mean having to admit they were wrong. They’ll never do that.

Which helps explain how we got to Senate Bill 419, a well-meaning but wrongheaded school discipline measure that threatens to make the state’s schools even more dysfunctional than they already are.

The goal of the bill — which is sponsored by Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, and the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color — is to protect kids from excessive discipline in schools. The alliance is counting on the assumption that reducing discipline will result in “an increase in positive outcomes for students and the communities in which they live.”

Unfortunately, giving students a free pass to defy and disrupt with impunity is likely to have the opposite effect.

Under the bill, as amended, schools would be prohibited — as of July 1, 2020 — from suspending any student from kindergarten to eighth grade “who disrupts school activities or otherwise willfully defies the valid authority of supervisors, teachers, administrators, or school officials.” The bill also would prevent students of any grade from being expelled from school for the same reason. The bill would also apply to charter schools, which run on public tax dollars but have more autonomy than traditional public schools.

The folks behind this legislation probably mean well. They seem to be trying to do something to prevent students of color — especially Latino and African American boys — from being picked on by teachers and administrators with a habit of doling out punishment unevenly. Studies show that — in an educational system where nearly three-fourths of teachers and an even higher percentage of administrators are white — young males of color are disciplined at much higher rates than their white counterparts. Students with special needs also suffer disproportionately.

That’s a legitimate problem. But an across-the-board ban on suspensions and expulsions is not the solution.

The most important lessons for young people to pick up — at home, and at school — are the “ABCs.” Accountability. Being responsible. Consequences.

Those life skills are priceless. And young people will never get them if, instead of teaching them to do right, adults simply shrug and tell them they can do no wrong.

© The Washington Post

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com. His daily podcast, “Navarrette Nation,” is available through every podcast app.