Torlakson, Brown differ on mandates

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has taken issue with Gov. Brown’s plan to eliminate half of K-12 mandates this year and to fund the remaining half through a block grant.

“We have some grave concerns on his selection of some critical mandated programs to be eliminated,” Erin Gabel, Torlakson’s director of the Legislative Affairs and Fiscal Policy Division at the state Department of Education, testified during a Senate Budget Committee last week.

Once the Legislature mandates programs or requirements, the state must in turn fund them. In his 2012-13 budget, Brown proposes to drop two dozen mandates that he considers unnecessary, that are funded by the federal government, or that local districts are likely to provide on their own.

But Gabel said that eliminating mandates on the assumption that districts will continue to do them anyway constitutes a budget cut in this fiscal environment, and leaves districts with what she called a “Sophie’s choice” of paying for the mandate or cutting other vital programs.

Btrown is proposing to eliminate two dozen mandates (top) and place the rest in a block grant. Click to enlarge. (Soucre: Legislative Analyst's Office).
Brown is proposing to eliminate two dozen mandates (top) and place the rest in a block grant. Click to enlarge. (Source: Legislative Analyst's Office).

Like the Legislative Analyst’s Office, which has long been calling for mandate reform, Torlakson agrees that the list of mandates should be reviewed and the process for reimbursement should be changed.

“Many mandates proposed for elimination do not serve a compelling, statewide purpose, such as ensuring accountability or protecting public health and safety,” the LAO concluded in a presentation to the Budget Committee. Torlakson doesn’t disagree, but maintains that it’s up to the Legislature to determine, one by one, which mandates should be dropped.

Gabel cited several mandates on Brown’s hit list as ones that should probably be retained and fully funded. Two deal with truancy: the requirements that school districts notify parents if their child is truant and then hold conferences with them. Enforcement of truancy laws is a state responsibility, Gabel said. Even though it’s in districts’ financial interest to be on top of truancy, since the state funds districts for students only when they’re in school, many districts are lax in enforcing the mandate.

Brown also wants to eliminate the mandates for a second year of high school science and for a physical education test. At a time when state leaders are pressing for college and career readiness standards, the state would be “going in the wrong direction” by dropping the science requirement, Gabel said. The increase in childhood obesity also is a state concern, Gabel said. Physical education isn’t covered by state standardized tests, so there’s no incentive for districts to continue the test, Gabel said. Perhaps the State Board will create new accountability measures, but until it does, the mandate should continue, she said.

Torlakson does agree that the current reimbursement system is flawed, however. The state is about $3 billion in arrears for repayment of mandates to districts. More than half of districts – particularly small districts – don’t file claims for most mandates, and those that do seek amounts that are all over the map. The state audits only 5 percent of the claims and rejects 75 percent of the amounts sought, according to the LAO, which said there’s no incentive for districts to be efficient or effective in carrying out mandates.

Brown proposes to put 22 mandates into a $178 million optional block grant, which works out to $30 per student. In order to get that amount, a district would have to carry out all of the mandates, which include AIDS instruction, the high school exit exam, health screenings, and school accountability report cards. Districts would still have the option of going through the laborious reimbursement request process, but the governor is betting that they’ll find it simpler to get a flat sum.

The LAO agreed with Brown that $178 million should be more than adequate to cover all of the mandates, but Torlakson and the California School Boards Association aren’t convinced and are doing their own calculations. What the CSBA opposes, Assistant Executive Director Dennis Meyers said, is suspending mandates one year and then enforcing them the next, in order to avoid reimbursements.

Brown wants his mandate proposal passed this spring, but Gabel said that Torlakson favors a deliberate process, without an immediate deadline. The Legislature must define “pivotal issues” and retain those mandates that ensure they are carried out equitably and consistently, she said.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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