Joan Buchanan served on her local school board in San Ramon Valley for 18 years before being elected to the California Assembly as a representative from the 16th Assembly District. She is currently the Chair of the Assembly Education Committee and a member of the Assembly Transportation, Utilities & Commerce, and Accountability and Administrative Review Committees.
T – ThinkTank Learning
B – Assemblymember Buchanan
T: Thank you, Assemblymember, for agreeing to be interviewed for ThinkTank’s monthly magazine. The New Year is underway and you have just begun a new session in the Legislature. What are some of the big issues that you see coming before the California Assembly this year?
B: California is emerging from the Great Recession that began in the 4th quarter of 2007. We’re experiencing some of the strongest job growth in the nation and state revenues are increasing. Yet most of the programs and services funded in the state budget remain below their 2008-09 levels. So determining how to balance the budget, fund the programs and services we value, and begin to build a rainy day reserve will be our greatest challenges during the first half of the year.
We also will have discussions about a pending bond that requires voter approval for statewide water projects. The future of high-speed rail will continue to be challenged in the courts.
T: What about education?
B: We are implementing the biggest changes to K-12 public education in California in over half a century. Last year the legislature passed a new funding formula proposed by Governor Brown. The Governor understood that at-risk students, students with family incomes near the poverty level, English language learners, and foster children require additional resources to learn. The new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) directs more resources to support these at-risk students. We all recognize that closing the achievement gap is not only critical to individual student success, it is critical to California’s economic success.
We also are implementing the new Common Core State Standards that were developed by the National Governors’ Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The new English Language Arts standards place a greater emphasis on teaching students to read and understand non-fiction so they will be able to read history, math and science books with the same fluency as literature, and the new mathematics standards will place a greater emphasis on problem solving versus rote memorization. New web-based testing, called the Smarter Balanced Assessment, tied to the new standards, will be field tested this year. It is an enormous challenge.
T: President Obama wants to make quality early childhood education available to all children. Do you agree with him?
B: Absolutely. The research is clear. Children who start behind finish behind or don’t finish at all. A child who attends preschool starts kindergarten with twice the vocabulary as child who did not attend preschool and three times the vocabulary of an English language learner who did not attend preschool. We also know children who are not reading by third grade are at high risk of dropping out of school. Preschool is a valuable investment in our children and our communities. The business community should be working with the education community to help us find a way to fund it.
T: You support the new Common Core State Standards and President Obama’s preschool initiative, is there anything else you would do to improve learning?
B: I think there are three keys to improving education. The first we discussed: preschool. The second is improving school leadership. I’ve never seen a great school without a great principal or a great district without a great superintendent. I have seen principals have a dramatic positive or negative impact on a school in a very short time. Administrators need to be both instructional leaders and management experts, a difficult combination to master. We need to improve our administrator credentialing programs and the on-going training and support we provide our leaders. The third key to improving education is increasing the capacity and effectiveness of our teachers. Teaching is an art that develops over time. That means providing more time for teachers to articulate and share best practices and more time for in-service training.
T: What are your thoughts about higher education?
B: I’m a product of public education in California. It’s what built our great state. Republican Governor Earl Warren and Democratic Governor Pat Brown had the courage to make investments in our schools and build our college and university systems even during times of great financial hardship. That’s why California is the home of the aerospace industry, technology, bio-technology, and information technology.
Unfortunately, we’ve moved away from those values and the Great Recession has significantly impacted our institutions of higher learning. Tuition has increased and accessibility decreased. We have to reverse that trend because future jobs will require more education, not less. Restoring funding to higher education must be part of our budget plan. We also need a long-term plan to ensure access. When I graduated from high school in 1970, California’s population was 20 million. Today it’s 38 million. We have built only one new University of California campus during that period.
T: You term out of the assembly in December 2014. What do you hope to accomplish this year?
B: I’m in the process of developing my legislative agenda for this year. During the next few weeks I will evaluate suggestions from staff and constituents. The questions I ask are first, what is the problem we are trying to solve and second, does the solution require a phone call or legislation?
My hope is that the legislature will exhibit restraint with respect to education legislation. Our districts and schools will be sufficiently challenged implementing the Local Control Funding Formula, Common Core State Standards and Smarter Balanced assessments. New legislation should support these efforts and not divert time and resources.
One bill I have introduced is a school facilities bond for the November 2014 ballot. The state has been a partner with districts with respect to building new classrooms and modernizing old classrooms. In the past decade voters have passed $35 billion in state general obligation bonds that have been matched by $65 billion in local bonds and developer funds. That’s a $100 billion investment in our school infrastructure and a great way to leverage state dollars and create jobs. It is a successful program that requires new state funding to continue.
T: Thank you Assemblymember Buchanan for taking the time to talk with Think Tank Learning Monthly Magazine.
B: It was my pleasure.