The Golden State Loses Its Luster: After Having a Rich and Unique History as an Education Leader, California Starts to Crumble under Fiscal Uncertainty: The Third of a Three State Series

By Dessoff, Alan | District Administration, July-August 2010 | Go to article overview

The Golden State Loses Its Luster: After Having a Rich and Unique History as an Education Leader, California Starts to Crumble under Fiscal Uncertainty: The Third of a Three State Series


Dessoff, Alan, District Administration


FROM THE GLAMOUR AND GLITZ OF HOLLYWOOD to the technological hub of Silicon Valley, from the majestic Redwoods to the surfers off the Malibu beaches, California is a state of contrasts in many ways, including its politics. A progressive, largely Democratic state and a bellwether for the rest of the country on sensitive issues, including opposition to the Iraq war and support for same-sex marriage, it elected two conservative Republican actors, Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, as governors over the last 40 years.

The contrasts extend to its public education system, from the renowned University of California system, which employs more Nobel Prize laureates than any other institution in the world, to a K12 system once considered the gold standard of the country, but in recent years, now hovering near the bottom of the states in terms of student achievement and per-pupil spending. Although no authorities make a direct link to California's early history, the contrasts reflect in some ways the cultural and political influences that shaped California and still do, from early pride in public education's role in the state's development to a current school financing crisis that Californians seem unsure how to resolve.

"California, Here I Come," a song written for the 1921 Broadway musical Bombo, isn't California's official state song but is often called that. Although the lyrics reflect how an absent Californian misses the state, the tide also fits the size and contrasting elements of the state's population. From early Asian, Spanish and European settlers who joined Native Americans already there, to later newcomers from across the United States and the world, California became one of the most diverse states in the country and the one with the highest population--35 million in 2002, according to U.S. census estimates. "Eureka," meaning "I have found it!" as the early settlers and their followers did, is the state motto.

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Adventurous Settlers

The earliest Californians, in addition to Native Americans, were adventurous Asians who had first made their way across the Bering Strait to Alaska thousands of years ago, when a warmer climate and a land bridge that no longer exists made travel easier, according to "The First Peoples of California," a document in the California History Collection of the U.S. Library of Congress.

Spanish explorers first visited lower California, now part of Mexico, in 1533. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese navigator sailing for the Spanish Crown, was the first European to set foot in what now is California, landing in 1542 on the shores of San Diego Bay and claiming California for Spain. The name "California" was taken from "Las Serges de Esplandian," a Spanish romance written about 1510 that described an imaginary island paradise.

When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, California became a state in the first Mexican empire. The California Republic was founded in an 1846 revolt against Mexico that became the Mexican-American War and was governed by the U.S. military until the constitutional convention in 1849 established civilian government, leading to statehood a year later.

Meanwhile, gold was discovered in 1848 at Sutter's Mill, near Sacramento, spawning the California Gold Rush, which reached its height in 1852 with 67,000 new arrivals, including 20,000 from China. Many of them ultimately joined other Chinese who had left the mining camps to move to San Francisco, where they established the country's first "Chinatown."

Early Schools

Before California formally became an American state in 1850, at least one American school had been established within its confines, according to an article in the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco by Will C. Wood, a state superintendent of public instruction in the 1920s. In 1846, Olive Mann Isbell, a niece of Horace Mann who came west from Ohio with her husband, a doctor, opened the first English school in California in an old adobe near the Santa Clara Mission, a few miles south of what now is San Francisco Bay. …

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