Wake-up call for California educators

Jeff vonKaenel

The future of California's education system was decided last night. That is, if last night was a school night. Because that is when tired moms and dads set their alarm clocks. And the tired moms and dads of more than 500,000 California charter-school students had to set their alarms to go off earlier, so they would have enough time to drive past the neighborhood school to their destination: a charter school.

The number of earlier risers is growing. This year alone in California, 104 new charter schools opened, expanding the total to 1,130. There are an additional 49,000 California students who applied to a charter but did not get in because there was no space available. In Sacramento County, we have 45 charter schools with 25,000 students. Three new Sacramento County charter schools opened this fall.

I recently attended the annual California Charter School Conference, where 3,000 charter school principals, teachers and superintendents gathered for workshops on how to improve their schools. I was there as a vendor. My company produces custom publications for nonprofits, government agencies, and for both charter schools and traditional school districts.

There was energy at the convention. A “can do” energy. A “we are small but watch us grow” energy. It was fun to see so many engaged people.

This energy that I felt at the convention was such a contrast to what I often feel when I attend traditional school events. Talking with school officials or attending education seminars, it’s more common to hear why something cannot be done.

Most people I know who are teachers, principals and superintendents are smart, dedicated, loving, funny and committed people. Great people. People who I value as my friends, my neighbors and as my fellow citizens. It is easy for me to identify with those who so clearly love children and are so committed to public service. But more than most professionals I meet, teachers working within the traditional schools are frustrated. Why?

Because the current system is crazy. The process is cumbersome and not working. Traditional schools have to deal with union policies that may have made sense at the bargaining table but have unintended consequences in the classroom. There is human deadwood that sucks up needed resources. This, combined with an education code that is both massive and contradictory, makes change nearly impossible.

Charter schools are public schools and tuition-free, but they differ from traditional schools in that parents and the local community can reimagine and govern the school with less interference from central bureaucracies. Hence, charter schools are freed, to varying degrees, of many of the challenges of traditional schools.

I hope that the increasing number of early alarm clocks will soon wake up California so that we can have a sane discussion of education policy.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.