D.C. to down home | TheUnion.com

D.C. to down home

Paula Campbell’s ventures into education started modestly in the early 1990s – volunteering in the classroom here, working on the school site council there.

These days, the Nevada City School Board trustee is climbing far bigger mountains.

Days after President Barack Obama unveiled a plan to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – also known as No Child Left Behind – Campbell jetted to Washington, D.C., with a group that met with education policy advisers to First Lady Michelle Obama and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

She and other members of the California School Boards Association – Campbell is immediate past president – talked straight about how politicians’ decisions affect the ” little guys,” including those in rural Nevada County schools.

Campbell’s children, now 23, 27 and 30, are long gone from Nevada City classrooms, but she brings the school board expertise garnered from years on the CSBA and numerous advocacy trips to the nation’s capital.

Now is a time of flux for NCSD, which faces a jarring, multimillion-dollar drop in revenue this year; trustees just approved a buffet of painful budget cuts.

Much of that pain is rooted in decisions made at the state and national level.

From her cozy retreat of a home, nestled amid Nevada City’s looming evergreens, Campbell offered her take on how behemoth education laws trickle down.

Q: We hear a lot of criticism of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind education reform, which was passed in 2001 and uses widespread standardized tests to measure school performance. What is wrong with it?

A: “With No Child Left Behind, the federal government’s role got way out of whack,” Campbell said.

Federal education policy zeroes in on civil rights, trying to ensure students living in poverty have access to good schools and tracking progress by ethnic group, gender and socio-economic status.

But the sweeping reform missed the mark in other areas – such as not providing a “growth model,” Campbell said.

Schools were told 100 percent of students needed to score “proficient” on standardized tests. If they score too low, government officials intervene.

But the “proficient” benchmark did not take into account the school’s past performance. Even if a low-performing school was making big strides, it is still eligible for government takeover if it doesn’t meet lofty achievement standards, Campbell said.

Q: Compared to other states, California schools rank low in per-student spending and dead last in student-to-staff ratios. Why are we struggling financially?

A: “There are inherent problems in Proposition 13,” Campbell said, referring to the 1978 California legislation that limits how fast property tax bills can rise.

Because school funding is intimately tied to property tax revenue, the law has kept rates low even while property values have skyrocketed. That’s a relief for property owners, but can restrain the growth of school district budgets.

Q: Is firing teachers based on low student test scores an effective way to improve schools?

A: While teachers should be held accountable, “the bad idea is to tie teachers to one assessment,” Campbell said.

A better way is to evaluate teacher performance based on several factors, including test scores, grades and student attendance.

“The challenges some schools face are worse than others. We should talk more about differential pay,” Campbell added.

This would offer higher pay to teachers in tough districts, reducing the high turnover rates and attracting talent to low-achieving districts.

Q: How do we help low-achieving students?

A: “We need to involve parents in school,” Campbell said. Parents can take an active role in their children’s education by volunteering and joining the school board.

Even in low-income areas where parents rarely have time to volunteer while balancing long work hours, the concept of “community schools” can make education a central part of daily life.

Some schools offer county services – such as health care clinics – on campus to draw in whole families.

Others offer daily breakfast in addition to free or reduced-price lunch.

Campbell has traveled to schools throughout the state, observing creative after-school and extra-curricular programs that increased student engagement. In one district with a high population of Spanish-speaking students, a district started a set of advanced Spanish classes.

Another district partnered with local businesses to provide a suit to any student who graduated from high school. The incentive went far to reduce the dropout rate.

“There’s no silver bullet,” Campbell said. “If there was one, someone would have found it.”

Allowing local school officials enough freedom to design programs that fit their students would be a step in the right direction, Campbell said.

“What needs to be done, fundamentally, is that the government back off on prescribing what districts should do,” she said.

To contact Staff Writer Michelle Rindels, e-mail mrindels@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4247.

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