Catching a wave of goodwill
As David Cameron's Big Society and its parent-founded free schools struggle into life amid a sea of funding cuts, just about everyone agrees that taking a close look at alternative national systems is essential. One might expect Scandinavia to be the ideal place to start - it is supposedly the inspiration for many of the Cameronian educational ideas, including free schools - but not many educationalists would turn instinctively to California. That, however, would be to make a mistake, as many more similarities exist between the Golden State and the current English educational scene than one might expect.
California has 30 years' experience of struggling to keep its schools system above water, surviving only because of a "big society" of charitable donations and the goodwill of teachers, parents and communities.
A combination of cuts and community contributions ought to sound familiar to those in Blighty. The Golden State has an international reputation for wealth - it is one of the richest states in the union. Companies such as Facebook are awash with money. But in educational terms, it is a state of "have-nots".
While other countries are only beginning to get used to the age of austerity, the state of California has teetered on the brink of bankruptcy for more than a generation, facing an annual struggle to agree any kind of budget.
Indeed, the state's parlous finances have had a detrimental effect for years on teachers and pupils at all stages of the education system, in a way that might horrify English headteachers facing cuts of little more than 1 or 2 per cent. The constant reduction in funding handed down to school districts from the state capital Sacramento means that educators and all those involved in education have had to find ever more inventive ways to bridge shortfalls.
It would be hard to exaggerate how desperate times are for Californian teachers. Only essential academic studies are funded by the state and anything falling outside this - sport, music, drama, even librarians - has been cut almost to the point of non-existence.
Stepping into the gap, in wealthy areas at least, are charitable organisations such as the Burlingame Community for Education Foundation (BCE) - the type of volunteer support network that might bring a smile to Cameron's face. In an ideal world, you can imagine him encouraging them to set up a free school.
Fundraising bodies such as these were founded to help support extracurricular activities using cash and a dash of parental enthusiasm, but such organisations increasingly find themselves forced to contribute to academic studies. In essence, the BCE makes up for a lack of cash needed to pay for staff. As one father of two elementary students who has experience of schools in Britain says, "public schools (in the UK, state schools) feel like private schools", because parents are expected to open their chequebooks so often.
Time and money
Supporting the network is time-consuming as well as a financial burden. Parents in Burlingame are encouraged to contribute a minimum of $750 (#163;480) per child per year as well as participate in, organise or donate to various fundraising activities. The same father-of-two estimates that in the previous school year, his contribution was about $2,000 - in addition to donating prizes for raffles and his spare time, in a way that might be more familiar to English parents. The BCE's annual dinner raises on average $200,000, and "lobster nights" for local fathers bring in smaller but equally welcome sums. In addition to these regular events, in the most recent academic year the BCE launched a successful initiative, Game On, to raise another $500,000 to save specific teacher posts that had been destined to be cut on account of the state's dire current finances.
Burlingame is an affluent area south of San Francisco, yet even here the BCE worries about donor apathy as each year it must battle to maintain the educational offering by returning to the same donors.
But in poorer areas of the city, where the affluence so often associated with this state is remarkable only for its absence, the situation is much worse. Parents do attempt to bankroll the activities that their wealthier fellow citizens pay for, but where they cannot afford the donations, there is a widespread assumption that teachers will step in, paying to assist students under their tuition.
The list is extraordinary, and would go down about as well as a surprise visit from Ofsted in a staffroom in England. Californian teachers are expected to buy pencils, pens, paper and satchels, as well as donating their time outside school hours to offer a more rounded education. Take Samantha Smith.* One month into the new academic year, Smith, who is just starting her teaching career, told TES that she has already spent $500. She is not alone. The accepted rule of thumb, Smith says, is that each teacher contributes between $350 and $1,000 annually to students' educational needs. In the US, as in the UK, teaching is regarded as a vocation, and not just a job. Thus, in California, more and more is expected but with less and less recognition.
How has this extraordinary situation developed in one of the most affluent states in the world's richest country? To find the answer, one has to go back to 1976, when California's electorate inadvertently voted to slash public sector funding. The tax breaks they voted for in a referendum led directly to a significant reduction in the state's funding - so significant, in fact, that California could afford to pay only for academic studies in elementary schools.
More than 30 years have passed since Californians cut all but essential funding to schools. The economy has seen many boom and bust periods since, but the lost government funding has never come back.
It is hard to imagine that any voter would deliberately choose to slash school funding and, in truth, Californians did not. In the mid 1970s, the state was booming, house prices climbed dramatically and, as a consequence, so did property taxes. Americans are known, rightly or wrongly, for their dislike of tax and distrust of central government and, as such, they added what amounted to a referendum to the electoral ballot. In basic terms, it asked: "Would you like your housing taxes to be reduced?" And the voters' response was a resounding "yes, please". So in 1978, Proposition 13 or the "People's Initiative to Limit Property Taxation" was passed and the tax was cut from an average of 2.6 per cent to 1 per cent.
Because this initiative was from "the people", it holds greater sway in the state capitol and cannot be undone by legislature. Tax revenues more or less dried up and have not flowed since.
Demotivation and demoralisation
As a result, funding for California's education system still suffers. Once one of the best systems in the US, it soon became one of the worst, with educationalists, principals and teachers struggling to keep it functioning. As Dennis Kelly, president of the United Educators of San Francisco, said: "Citizens of San Francisco picked up where the citizens of California let us down." While the BCE worries about donor apathy, classroom unions lobby to prevent burnout.
Indeed, these unions lobby the city and the state on behalf of their members. Successes in recent years have included funds being cleared for a retention programme aimed at stopping the "demotivation and exodus" of teaching staff.
They are given $2,500 on the first day of the third year, and on the first day of the ninth year they receive $3,000. In addition, bonuses are paid to teachers at 25 "hard-to-staff" schools selected by the school district. These teachers can expect to receive a further $1,000 at the end of each semester - $2,000 a year. This is clearly a move to fix the demotivation, burnout and demoralisation issues caused by Proposition 13.
Such is this demoralisation that about 50 per cent of teachers leave the profession within five years of joining, which is perhaps not surprising given the financial constraints staff have to work under.
The funding crisis also has other consequences that British education policy wonks would be wise to take a look at. For example, the increasing phenomenon of private companies getting involved in state education - attempting to fill the void where one might expect the state to be, because, frankly, the state can't afford it. Echoes can be heard here for England, where the private sector is increasingly prominent in state education and there is an increasing acceptance of the idea of profit-making in schools.
One case in point is Jeb Bush (brother of George W. Bush), who is behind an organisation called the Foundation for Excellence in Education, which aims to "ignite a movement of reform, state by state" using digital platforms. But to facilitate this it has linked up with Wireless Generation, a Rupert Murdoch-owned company that provides education-based software, assessment tools and data services.
This relationship has caused widespread controversy. Educators in San Francisco have publicly denounced Wireless Generation's involvement in the city's education sector, especially in light of Murdoch's involvement in the recent phone-hacking scandal in the UK. It is reasonable to suppose that teacher unions in the UK might react in much the same way, particularly because the likes of the NUT and the NASUWT are unusually unified in their suspicion of the profit motive.
Taking a look at Californian schools is, then, like looking at a system where the worst predictions of the consequences of the Govian revolution have come to pass.
It has been 30 years since the inadvertent creation of an education system that cannot survive without help from outside the state, and California is now struggling to repair the damage and to cope with a system that provides an unequal and inconsistent education.
As parents and school staff work, year in, year out, to boost funding while the state reduces its contributions, it is impossible not to wonder how long it will be before breaking point is reached. Just ask the good citizens of the Golden State.
* Not her real name.