Compromise on school fees bill

Advocates of a complaint process for parents and students who believe they’re being charged illegal fees have amended a bill to satisfy all of the main opponents, save the silent one who hasn’t been heard from yet. That’s Gov. Jerry Brown, who vetoed similar legislation last year.

On Wednesday, the Senate Education Committee approved AB 1575 without opposition, and changes that were made to the bill may smooth its way through the Senate and on to Brown’s desk. One factor could motivate him to sign it this year: Doing so would settle a lawsuit against the state that the state is likely to lose.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California is pushing the bill that Assemblymember Ricardo Lara (D-South Gate) is sponsoring for the second straight year. Two years ago, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit against the state after discovering, through an informal investigation, that dozens of school districts were charging students for textbooks, lab materials, Advanced Placement test fees, and sports uniforms. Students who couldn’t afford them were sometimes publicly humiliated.

The ACLU based its lawsuit on the state Constitution’s guarantee of “a system of common schools by which a free school shall be kept up and supported in each district…” In the 1984 decision Hartzell v. Connell, the state Supreme Court explicitly prohibited charges and fees for school programs. Former Gov. Schwarzenegger wanted to resolve the lawsuit, and the judge in Los Angeles County Superior Court agreed to put it on hold while a bill encoding the fees ban into statute and establishing a reimbursement process went through the Legislature in 2011.

Last year, in vetoing AB 165, Brown wrote that “this bill takes the wrong approach.” It would “mandate that every single classroom in California post a detailed notice and that all 1,042 school districts and over 1,200 charter schools follow specific complaint, hearing, and audit procedures, even where there have been no complaints, let alone evidence of any violation. This goes too far.”

Lara’s new amended bill drops some of the requirements that groups like the Association of California School Administrators and the California Association of School Business Officials considered onerous.

The requirement of posting a notice of the prohibition on fees in every classroom remains. So does the complaint process, which is based on the procedures in the settlement of the Williams lawsuit protecting low-income children, requiring textbooks in every classroom, qualified teachers in every school, and clean, safe facilities. Parents who believe they are being charged illegally can file a complaint to their principal, who can resolve it or refer the matter to the district office, which has a month to reimburse and settle. If not, the parent can forward the complaint to the state Department of Education for a determination and order to reimburse. CDE’s estimated cost of administering the process is $350,000 per year.

Gone from the bill are provisions that appeared to involve state mandates: a requirement that districts verify early in the school year to make sure no fees are being charged in any school, an audit provision at the end of the school year, and the imposition of a fine on districts that fail to comply with the reimbursements.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit is moving forward again, according to Brooks Allen, director of education advocacy for the ACLU of Southern California. The Brown administration took the position that blame for illegal fees lies with the districts, not the state. But in January, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Carl West ruled that the state can’t slough off its responsibility to enforce children’s right to a free public education.

That decision may serve to temper Brown’s inclination, if he has it, to veto Lara’s bill again.

Note to readers: This is the last piece I’ll be posting on TOP-Ed. On Monday, co-writer Kathy Baron and I will start work at EdSource, where we will continue writing daily on California education issues while joining EdSource’s talent staff to expand our coverage. To learn more about the move and the future of TOP-Ed, please go here.

Dismissal bill falters in Assembly

With teachers and organized labor rallying against what they called an unnecessary attack on their rights, a bill that would make it easier to fire teachers and administrators accused of serious sexual and violent offenses against children failed to pass the Assembly Education Committee on Wednesday. Sen. Alex Padilla’s controversial SB 1530 will be dead for the session unless he can persuade one more Democrat to reverse positions within the next week .

The bill had bipartisan support in the Senate, where it passed 33-4, but, in a test of strength by the California Teachers Association, only one Democrat, Education Committee Chairwoman Julia Brownley, and all four Republicans backed it in the crucial committee vote. The other six Democrats either voted buy clomid online against it (Tom Ammiano, San Francisco; Joan Buchanan, San Ramon) or didn’t vote (Betsy Butler, El Segundo; Wilmer Carter, Rialto; Mike Eng, Alhambra; and Das Williams, Santa Barbara).

The bill follows shocking incidents of sexual abuse in Los Angeles Unified and elsewhere, the worst of which involved Mark Berndt, 61, who’s been accused of 23 lewd acts against children at Miramonte Elementary in LAUSD. Padilla, a Democrat from Van Nuys, said SB 1530 responded to complaints from superintendents and school board members that it takes too long and is too expensive to fire teachers facing even the worst of charges. Rather than go through hearings and potential appeals, LAUSD paid Berndt $40,000, including legal fees, to drop the appeal of his firing.

Under current law, dismissal cases against teachers and administrators go before a three-person Commission on Professional Competence, which includes two teachers and buy amoxil online an administrative law judge. Its decision can be appealed in Superior Court.

Narrow band of ‘egregious’ cases

SB 1530 would have carved out a narrow band of exceptions applying to “egregious or serious” offenses by teachers and administrators involving drugs, sex, and violence against children. In those cases, the competence commission would be replaced by a hearing before an administrative law judge whose strictly advisory recommendation would go to the local school board for a final decision, appealable in court.

The bill also would have made admissible evidence of misconduct older than four years. Berndt had prior reports of abuse that had been removed from his file,  because a statute of limitations in the teachers contract in LAUSD prohibited their use.

School boards already have final say over dismissal of school employees other than teachers and administrators, so the bill would extend that to efforts to remove “a very creepy teacher” from the classroom,” as Oakley Union Elementary School District Superintendent Richard Rogers put it. “What is more fundamental than locally elected officials responsible for hiring and dismissal?” he asked.

The bill has the support of the administrators and school boards associations, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and the LAUSD president, Monica Garcia, who described her fellow board members as “seven union-friendly Democrats” who want to “get rid of people who will hurt our children.”

Current law works

But Warren Fletcher, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, countered that “SB 1530 solves nothing, places teachers at unfair risk, and diverts attention from the real accountability issues at LAUSD.” Turning the tables, Fletcher, CTA President Dean Vogel, and others have filed statements with the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing to investigate Superintendent John Deasy’s handling of misconduct allegations in the district.

The argument that current law works resonated with Buchanan, who served two decades on the San Ramon Valley School Board. Calling the bill “intellectually dishonest” because nothing can prevent another Miramonte from happening, she said, “We never had problems dismissing employees.” She acknowledged that the “long, expensive dismissal process” needs to be streamlined, but the bill doesn’t get it right. A teacher at a school in her legislative district was accused of sexual misconduct by a student who got a bad grade. That teacher “deserves due process.”

The two teachers on the Commission on Professional Competence provide professional judgment that’s needed to protect the rights of employees, said Patricia Rucker, a CTA lobbyist who’s also a State Board of Education member. “We do value the right to participate and adjudicate standards for holding teachers accountable,” she said.

Fletcher said that school boards would be subject to parental pressure in emotionally charged cases, and, as a policy body, should not be given judicial power. Assemblyman Ammiano, a former teacher, agreed. “A school board is not the one to make the decision,” he said.

Julia  Brownley said that she too was concerned about false charges against teachers but would support the bill, for it “will give districts tools” for rare circumstances. The bill would make the dismissal process more efficient and definitive. And she agreed with Padilla that the bill ensured due process for teachers, who’d be allowed to present their case, with witnesses, before an administrative judge and appeal an adverse decision to Superior Court.

Oakley Superintendent Richards said that the CTA misstated what SB 1530 does and “has taken such an extreme position on this issue that they have lost credibility.” The union’s real fear is that the bill will be “a nose under the camel’s tent” to change the dismissal process for all teachers. And that, he said, is unfounded.

Padilla was to have issued a statement last night on the setback in the committee but didn’t. Update: Padilla issued a statement this morning that reads, in part:  “SB 1530 was narrowly crafted to focus only on cases in which school employees are accused of sex, violence, or drug use with children. It is difficult to understand why anyone would oppose a measure to protect children. It is very disappointing.”

160-day minimum year coming

Call it a last-minute clarification or a June surprise, another piece of bad news: A trailer bill that the Legislature will vote on Wednesday permits districts to slash the school year by an additional three weeks for the next two years, if voters reject Gov. Brown’s tax increase in November. That’s twice what  Gov. Jerry Brown seemed to suggest in the May budget revise when he proposed the elimination of 15 days divided over a two-year period. Instead, the Legislature is prepared to authorize a 160-day year, likely the lowest in the nation and far behind other advanced nations; nearly all states have a 180-day year, which California also required before 2010.

In one sense, nothing has changed. Brown hasn’t suggested less funding for schools than the $53.6 billion for 2012-13 that the Legislature approved in passing the budget last week. Districts will have to negotiate a shorter year with their unions; they can’t declare it unilaterally, and most districts won’t go that low.

But the language in AB 1476 (section 50, midway through a very long bill) is a stark message that a defeat of the tax increase will create more than a one-year revenue crisis for schools.

Brown basically spared K-12 schools cuts in this year’s state budget but is promising to slash school funding by $5.5 billion if voters reject the income tax/sales tax increase. That translates to $441 per student, about an 8.4 percent cut in funding. Eliminating 15 days out of a minimum 175 days would be an 8.6 percent cut in the calendar. So cutting 7.5 days each of the next two years would solve only half of the gap, leaving districts to make other cuts through layoffs, benefits, or non-pay areas.

Lowering the minimum year to 160 days now would be too late for those districts and unions that already have negotiated potential cuts. Sacramento City Unified teachers earlier this month approved a two-day furlough, plus an additional 10 days, lowering the school year to 168 days, if the tax initiative fails.

A Senate staff member said that the intent of the trailer bill language is to give districts more flexibility to cope with terrible choices. Most districts won’t go to a 160-day year, but it will be an option. Because districts must submit balanced budgets for two years beyond the current year, districts can negotiate with certainty for continued furloughs through 2013-14. The governor approved the trailer bill language, which clears up any ambiguous reading of his earlier proposals, the staff member said.

But Robert Miyashiro, vice president of the education consulting firm School Services of California, said that the Legislature shaped the budget the way it is, so it is disingenuous to say, It is out of our hands. Legislators strategically set it up to say the schools must take a big cut if the initiative flops.

A spokesman for the California Teachers Association said that the union had not read the trailer bill language and could not comment. The trailer bill also contains language permitting  teachers and other school employees to accrue a full year of  vesting for pensions if a district’s school year drops to as few as 160 days.

First, keep the lights on

Given more control over how they could spend state money, school districts not surprisingly chose survival over experimentation. And if legislators want otherwise – to encourage districts to innovate or target money on low-achieving students – then they should be more explicit about their intentions.

That was the main finding and chief recommendation of a study of districts’ flexible spending last year by the RAND Corporation and researchers with the University of California. The results are consistent with annual surveys by the Legislative Analyst’s Office the past two years.

The study – also a survey, of chief financial officers in 223 districts – diagnosed  how districts spent their share of $4.5 billion in previously earmarked spending. That encompassed 40 of 60 categorical programs and slightly less than a quarter of the $19 billion in total restricted spending that the Legislature made flexible in 2009.

Longtime advocates of unloosing control from Sacramento had speculated that districts might use deregulated  spending to “make focused investments in new instructional approaches to meet local needs” or push decision-making to the school site level. They wondered whether vocal, well-organized groups – educated parents or unions – would dominate control over spending, aggravating disparities in student spending.

But none of this happened to a great extent. (There is an interesting experiment on school-based budgeting in Los Angeles Unified and Twin Rivers Unified, which contributors to TOP-Ed have written about here and here.) Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cut categorical programs 20 percent in 2009 when instituting flexibility, and total K-12 spending has been cut 18 percent since 2007-08. As a result, districts “swept” restricted dollars into their general funds in order to keep solvent and prevent additional layoffs, the study found. Money that had been earmarked for teacher and staff training and for general school improvement was largely diverted. Adult education was cut severely in many districts that had the programs.

“Hopes of some advocates that local control would spur widespread innovation or a new focus on classroom improvements simply proved unrealistic,” the study’s co-author, Bruce Fuller, a co-director of the Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), said in a news release.

However, the study also found that “about one-third (of districts) reported that aligning spending with ‘school improvement goals’ was a high priority, and a few reported allocating newly flexible dollars to instructional reforms.” The latter were mainly urban school districts.

Lost accountability

The study has implications moving forward. Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed shifting most categorical dollars, including the money already flexed, into a weighted student funding formula that would shift significant spending to low-income students and English learners. Brown’s proposal has run into opposition based on the distribution formula. But advocates for poor children also have called on Brown to include assurances that the extra dollars would be spent on them and that local parent and English learner school committees be given a role in overseeing the dollars. The groups, which included the Education Trust-West and Public Advocates, stated their position in a June 14 letter to Brown.

Another approach could be a block grant, in which districts have latitude to spend as they choose within parameters, such as designating money broadly for professional development. Assemblymember Julia Brownley, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, took that approach in AB 18, a variation of a weighted student formula.

RAND and the LAO had to rely on district surveys, because the state didn’t force districts to report how they spent formerly restricted dollars. The RAND-UC report recommends that the state Department of Education require this and that legislators require that flexibility be evaluated to determine which students and which programs benefited and which did not. Among the questions worth asking:

  • “What happens to programs whose funds are most often swept up, such as art and music?”
  • “How do changes in adult education funding affect communities and other institutions providing such services?”

Another report urges changing API

A report this week from a Washington think tank bolsters Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s call for significantly revising the state’s primary accountability measure, the Academic Performance Index. Now, if Gov. Jerry Brown would only read it…

“Ready by Design: A College and Career Ready Agenda for California,” published by Education Sector, recommends that the API shift focus from students’ performance on standardized tests to measures of readiness for college and careers, such as high school graduation rates, results of Advanced Placement tests, and percentages of students needing remediation in college. Account-EdSectorStudyCover062012That’s essentially what Steinberg’s bill, SB 1458, would do without specifying what measures would be included, and that is what his bill last year, SB 547, would have done, had Gov. Jerry Brown not vetoed it with a snarky message sharply critical of quantitative gauges of school achievement.

The report concluded that additional measures would not be a panacea, “but an outcomes-oriented API would at least measure and reinforce what’s most important: graduating students from high school with the knowledge and skills to succeed in higher education and a career,” wrote co-authors Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst with Education Sector, and Bill Tucker, deputy director, policy development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The report was funded by the James Irvine Foundation, a big promoter and funder of an initiative to combine college readiness and career technical education, called linked learning.

This is the second report from Ed Sector in a month on the California API. Last week, I wrote about “Academic Growth over Time,” in which author Richard Lee Colvin, a former executive director of Ed Sector, recommends Los Angeles Unified’s alternative way to calculate student results on standardized tests. The reports need not be mutually exclusive; recommendations from both could be combined.

When establishing the three-digit API index in 1999, the Legislature implied that it would be adding a range of measures, but never did. Instead, the API is based on California Standards Tests results, primarily English language arts and math, plus results on the high school exit exam, which are not indicators of preparation for life beyond high school. But by adopting Common Core standards two years ago, the state embraced the goal of aligning high school achievement with college and career expectations. The API needs to change to reflect this, the Ed  Sector report says.

In his veto message of SB547 last year, Brown said that changing API now, when facing the challenges of new Common Core curriculum, texts, and tests, “doesn’t make sense.”

Sharply rebutting that, the authors wrote, “In fact, what doesn’t make sense is implementing new standards, tests, and curriculum that are aligned with college and career readiness while continuing to evaluate school performance based on an entirely different goal. More important, Brown’s continued opposition to CALPADS, his refusal to apply for federal funds to improve the state’s data collection, and his veto of the API redesign, only serve to maintain the very status quo that he repeatedly condemns.”

While college acceptance rates are indicators of readiness, the report recommends adding evidence of post-high school achievement to the API, such as college remediation rates, percentage of students who return to college after one year, and the percentage of students who enter the military or who go straight to work after high school. Unlike states like Florida, which track students after high school, California has incomplete, voluntarily collected data – hence the criticism of Brown for forgoing chances for federal database money.

Underutilized EAP measure

California does have one measure of readiness that other states consider a model: the Early Assessment Program, a series of questions created by the California State University and administered as a supplement to CSTs taken by high school juniors. But the authors said that “while touted as a model for those developing Common Core assessments, its respect outshines its influence.” The University of California and most community colleges don’t use results of EAP, and most high schools aren’t using the followup courses in math and expository writing that would enable high school seniors to bypass remediation in college.

Quoting a 2006 survey that found 10 percent of high school teachers said their students graduated not ready for college, compared with 44 percent of college faculty who said students arrived unprepared, the report cited “mismatched expectations on both sides.” Including college readiness measures in the API would encourage high schools, colleges and business leaders to work closer to create common expectations and share expertise and knowledge. The report cited promising examples: collaboration between a San Diego high school and the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District to redesign high school English courses; and the extensive agreements between Long Beach Unified and the local community college and CSU, Long Beach.

Calling SB 1458 “my highest priority,” Steinberg said, “I really believe this bill would bring about a change in cultures. It would create incentives to link education with needs of economy in a fundamental way.”

“The Administration is fine with the API the way it is. I disagree and want to limit the importance of testing,” he said.

The bill, which has passed the Senate, will be heard in the Assembly Education Committee on June 27. Steinberg said he hoped to negotiate with Brown on the measures in the bill. It includes the possibility of including school inspections, which Brown raised in his veto message and mentioned in his State of the State message in January.

California’s first-class Dreamers

Beatriz, the daughter of  house cleaners, and Chava, the son of tamale and ice cream makers from San Jose, will enroll this fall in the University of California at Merced – an event they viewed as unattainable until two months ago. They did aspire to a four-year degree. But as undocumented immigrants from Mexico whose parents moved them to America before they were in middle school, they were realists, too. Community college would be all they could afford, if that.

Beatriz and Chava are the new California Dreamers, among the first to receive college aid under California’s   Dream Act, which Jerry Brown signed into law last year on its fifth trip to the governor’s desk.

Chava, at his graduation from Downtown College Prep in San Jose, would be the first of five children to attend college. Click to enlarge. (Photo by Fensterwald)
Chava, at his graduation from Downtown College Prep in San Jose, would be the first of five children to attend college. Click to enlarge. (Photo by John Fensterwald)

Starting in  2013, Cal Grants will be available to undocumented immigrants and other income-eligible nonresident Californians who graduated from a California high school after attending at least three years. But Beatriz’ and Chava’s counselor at Downtown College Prep, a charter high school in San Jose, had heard that UC campuses were planning to award Dream Act money through private scholarships under their control sooner than that under AB 130, a separate part of the Dream Act. So each student hurriedly filled out a financial application this spring, and, sure enough, soon after their UC Merced acceptance letter came, offers to each for $22,000 – a little more two-thirds of the estimated cost of fees and room and board at a UC campus for next year. Now, with their fathers’ encouragement and mothers’ ambivalent mixture of pride and trepidation, and with additional scholarships from DCP and money the families and students have saved, they’ll be heading away from home to college.

The state Department of Finance estimated last year that 2,500 students will qualify for Cal Grants under the Dream Act. That’s about 1 percent of the total recipients, but less than one third of those will be undocumented students. The rest will be California high school graduates who want to return to the Golden State for college.

Finance estimated the state cost of Cal Grants for Dream Act recipients at $14.5 million per year. Opponents of the law argue it will attract more illegal immigrants and siphon money that could be used for citizens. Proponents, like Gov. Brown, respond that the state should encourage and reward all students for their hard work; the state will need more college grads, and a Cal Grant is a pittance compared with the nearly $100,000 the state paid for their K-12 education.

Though they lack a U.S. birth certificate, Beatriz and Chava are American success stories, embodying “ganas,” that intense desire that teachers and students celebrate at Downtown College Prep. Beatriz’ family moved from the state of Oaxaca when she was 11, and the future social worker knew not a word of English. Soon she was interpreting for her parents as they went door to door in Fremont, drumming up business for the family. One of five children and the first to go to college,  Chava, a future entrepreneur, and his family left Tijuana when he was eight or nine.

“Both students have tremendous amount of grit,” says Prisilla Lerza, the college financial manager at DCP. “At different moments, they have dealt with their immigration status but given their all. All of our teachers would describe them as top students.”

At DCP, which targets low-performing middle school students from low-income Hispanic families, about 20 percent of students are undocumented immigrants. This year it was 11 of 49 graduates. During junior year, when it’s time to get serious about college applications, immigration status has become a demarcation, and sometimes a difficult subject to broach.

“Some students don’t know they are undocumented until they apply to college, and others are taught to be in the closet – that something bad can happen to them,” said Lerza. “The emotional part catches up at some point and for some can subtly manifest in despair. We see that in not meeting deadlines for applying or in terms of what schools they apply to; they pursue community college as their only option.”

This year, Cal Grants for high school graduates with a grade point average of 3.0 or higher provided tuition and fees of up to $12,192 at a UC campus and up to $5,472 at a CSU campus. For students with only a 2.0 GPA, the income ceilings are much lower – $42,100 for a family of four – and the first year aid of $1,551 is a lot lower. With state aid for eligible undocumented students still a year away, the Dream Act was cruelly illusive for many of Beatriz’ and Chava’s friends at DCP. Beatriz, with a 3.8 average, and Chava, with a 3.4, took their chances anyway, and applied to CSUs and UCs on the chance of private scholarships.

Never quite at ease

But California is not an island, and the debate over immigration roils the nation. The federal Dream Act, providing Pell grants and loans to undocumented students, along with a path to citizenship, remains tied up in Congress, and worry over getting inadvertently ensnared in raids by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement tempers these students’ optimism.

Beatriz is not her name, and Chava is only his nickname. Their reluctance to identify themselves – Chava did permit his family graduation photo to be published after talking it over with his parents – reflects the eerie twilight they live in: What the state may giveth in scholarships, the feds may taketh away in opportunity to find work and live without fear after they graduate.

“My teachers say, ‘Things will change.’ When I talk to teachers, I am an optimist. But my uncles and aunts tell me, ‘You won’t be able to find work when you get out,’” Beatriz said.

I spoke with Beatriz and Chava the day before President Obama announced his historic executive decision to halt deportations of 800,000 federal Dream Act eligible students like them and to grant two-year renewable work permits. Reached yesterday, Chava said he would apply for a permit so that he can work while studying for extra money. But he is only partly encouraged by Obama’s action.

“A two-year work permit is not that much, and I’m not sure how long the process will take,” he said. “You can’t tell what will happen – whether Obama will be re-elected.”

Chava said that one day he may open a restaurant for his parents, who are street vendors. He discovered his interest in business when he was chosen one of three DCP students to attend an expense-paid conference sponsored by Rotary at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove. “This was a brand new experience, one of the highlights in my life,” he said. The conference taught him how to engage with other people, how can you become entrepreneur and start and maintain a business, he said. Chava plans to double major in business and engineering – “to take advantage of the opportunity.”

UC Merced will wait until January to announce how much in private scholarships it awarded this year to Dream Act students. Dream Act applications went online in April for action after Jan. 1. So far, 6,500 students have begun the process of filling out the application and 5,108 completed it, according to Ed Emerson of the California Student Aid Commission, which will administer the program. These will include students seeking fee waivers from community colleges.

API has served its purpose

A court decision this week involving Los Angeles Unified has raised again the contentious issue of evaluating teachers using standardized test scores. But a recent report for the think tank Education Sector recommends adopting the same method developed by Los Angeles Unified to replace the Academic Performance Index as a statewide way of measuring schools’ progress.

Called Academic Growth over Time, AGT is a value-added model that compares students’ actual performance on state tests to their predicted performance based on demographic characteristics – family income, language, and ethnicity – as well as past test scores. The intent is to distinguish factors of learning that schools can control from those they can’t.

The use of AGT to evaluate individual teachers has sharply divided teachers in Los Angeles Unified. United Teachers Los Angeles opposes using AGT in any manner, while teachers affiliated with Teach Plus Los Angeles and Students Matter support using it as one of several measures, counting for no more than a third of an evaluation. But less controversial is the district’s use of AGT as a tool to evaluate schools, in part because it involves a larger number of student test scores and doesn’t call for high-stakes decisions affecting individual teachers’ careers. To the contrary, a schoolwide AGT can encourage collaboration and team-teaching

This is a page from the Academic Growth over Time report for Taft Senior High School in Los Angeles Unified, cited in the report for its underwhelming achievement. Scores in green indicate a performance that exceeded the district averge for the popularion of students served (Algebra II over three years); gray is close to the dsitrict average (geometry); yellow is below the predicted AGT (English language arts last year; and red (Algebra I last year) is far below the predicted AGT. Taft's overall API was 744 last year; for whites, who comprise 40 percent of the student body, it was the state's target of 800; Source: Los Angeles Unified
This is a page from the Academic Growth over Time scorecard for Taft Senior High School in Los Angeles Unified, cited in the Education Sector report for its underwhelming achievement. The score, on a 1 to 5 scale, in green indicates a performance that exceeded the district average for the population of students served (Algebra II over three years); gray is close to the district average (geometry); yellow is below the predicted AGT (English language arts last year); and red (Algebra I last year) is far below the predicted AGT. Taft's overall API was 744 last year; for whites, who comprise 40 percent of the student body, it was the state's target of 800; for Hispanics, it was 695. (Source: Los Angeles Unified)

Last fall, for the first time, Los Angeles Unified released AGT report cards for all schools, breaking down every subject or grade taught on a scale of one to five, with students’ actual scores compared with where they should have been, given student populations, for a one-year and a three-year average. The AGT’s advantage is that it can highlight improvements in high-minority, high-poverty schools that may flunk under the federal and state accountability criteria, while pointing to mediocre performances in high-wealth schools that can glide by the targets of No Child Left Behind and the state’s API.

Here is the AGT report card for Audubon Middle School for 2010-11. All of he subject and grade level scores are in green and blue, indicated progress that exceeded and far exceeded the district averages. Its API score remains relatively low at 733. (Source: Los Angeles Unified.)
Here is the AGT report card for Audubon Middle School for 2010-11. All of the subject and grade level scores are in green and blue, indicating progress that exceeded and far exceeded the district averages. Its API score remains relatively low at 733. (Source: Los Angeles Unified.)

The Education Sector report pointed to Audubon Middle School that, under a new principal and re-energized staff, had a 12 percent gain in the API score in one year. But it was still in the bottom 20 percent and failed to meet the proficiency target under NCLB for the 10th straight year.

The state’s three-digit API number, on a scale of 200 to 1,000, is “a crude proxy for student achievement and allowed schools to be ranked,” writes Richard Lee Colvin, former executive director of Education Sector and author of “Measures That Matter: Why California Should Scrap the Academic Performance Index.” “But it was not designed to give educators much help in analyzing school performance, and it told the public more about who attended each school than how well they were being taught.”

The API’s shortcomings have been known for a long time, and Colvin  lists them:

  • It’s an indicator of students’ wealth rather than of a school’s educational quality;
  • It places too much emphasis on math and reading scores, so that schools end up giving short shrift to science, social studies, and the arts ­– subjects that don’t factor much or at all in the API number;
  • More than 40 percent of schools are above the arbitrary target of 800 and so are no longer held accountable for helping students who are struggling academically;
  • It doesn’t track individual students’ academic growth over time; progress is measured by comparing  how students in a particular grade or subject do one year, compared with different  students the previous year.

Narrow measure of school success

The Legislature had intended that the API be a wider index when it created the index in 1999, but nothing has changed. Now, for the second year, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has proposed SB 1458 to broaden the API to include possible factors as graduation, dropout rates and college acceptances, and Advanced Placement scores, along with giving science and other subjects more weight. In a nod to Gov. Jerry Brown, who suggested the idea, Steinberg’s bill could include the results of school inspections measuring non-quantifiable but important factors like school climate and parent evaluations.

There’s no reason why a new index that emerges – whatever it’s called – couldn’t also incorporate AGT as a measure of student progress in combination with proficiency rates on state tests. Colvin said that the costs for districts to compute the AGT scores for its students need not be significant; Colorado has developed an open-source model that districts or the state could buy for $250,000.

State Board of Education President Michael Kirst said he was open to innovative accountability models, but that now is not time to switch to value-added method. The state will begin using Common Core assessments in 2014-15, and at least two or three years of new data would be needed, bringing the adoption of a new system to 2018-19 at the earliest. The State Board will be reviewing the state’s accountability methods over the next year. Colvin called for making a commitment to AGT now and preparing for a transition. The State Board could grant waivers from the use of API to districts like Los Angeles Unified in the meantime.

But Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy told me the district was interested in a federal waiver from No Child Left Behind, not a state waiver, so that it get out from federal sanctions for school failures as the feds defined it and also gain more control over federal Title I money. After months of delay, the state has requested an NCLB waiver, but not on terms requested by the Department of Education; getting the waiver would appear problematic.

Student scores in evaluations

In a decision with statewide implications, a Superior Court judge ruled that Los Angeles Unified must include measures of student progress, including scores on state standardized tests, when evaluating teachers and principals.

But Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant will leave it to the district, in negotiations with its teachers union and administrators union, to determine what other measures of student performance might also be included, how much weight to give them in an evaluation, and how exactly test scores and other measures should be used.

Chalfant’s decision would appear to strengthen Superintendent John Deasy’s push to move forward with a complex value-added system of measuring individual students’ progress on state standardized tests, called Academic Growth over Time. Deasy wants to introduce AGT on a test basis in a pilot evaluation program next year. But the unions remain adamantly opposed to AGT; Chalfant said the use of AGT as a measure of student progress is not his call to make; and today, hours before Chalfant is to meet again with parties in the lawsuit over evaluations, Los Angeles Unified school board member Steve Zimmer will propose barring AGT from staff evaluations. The school board will vote on his motion later this month.

Chalfant released his tentative decision on Monday. (Update: On Tuesday, after a hearing with all parties, he made the ruling final.) But the carefully crafted, 25-page ruling is not likely to change much, if at all, and may become final today, after the school district and unions get a final chance to make their case at a hearing.

The ruling is a victory for Sacramento-based EdVoice, which filed suit on behalf of a half-dozen unnamed Los Angeles Unified students and their parents and guardians. EdVoice’s lawsuit claimed that the Stull Act, the 40-year-old state law laying out procedures for teacher and administrator evaluations, requires school districts to factor in student progress on district standards, however they decide to measure it, as well as scores on the California Standards Tests (CST) in evaluations and that Los Angeles Unified was ignoring the requirement – as do most school districts.

Chalfant agreed and, in his decision, quoted Deasy, who, in testimony, acknowledged the district doesn’t look at how students do academically when evaluating teachers.  On Monday, Deasy praised the tentative decision, and called for  the district, his employer, to move quickly to act on it. “The district has waited far too long to comply with the law,” Deasy said. “This is why LAUSD has created its own evaluation system, and has begun to use it. The system was developed with the input of teachers and administrators.”

Next step: negotiating compliance

Chalfant’s tentative ruling proposed that attorneys for EdVoice and the parents propose a plan for compliance and that they and the district try to negotiate specifics over the next month. Whatever they agree to would still likely have to be negotiated with United Teachers Los Angeles and Associated Administrators Los Angeles.

Bill Lucia, president and CEO of EdVoice, praised Chalfant’s decision. While acknowledging that the emphasis given to student progress could become a sticking point in negotiations between the district and teachers, he said the ruling makes clear “there is no status quo going forward.”

“It won’t be OK to sit on their hands,” Lucia said. “The district must come up with something different that passes the laugh test and makes a sincere effort to honor the statute requiring that evaluations look at whether kids are learning.”

EdVoice took no position on whether the AGT should be the tool by which to measure student performance in Los Angeles. But, Lucia said, the district must consider other measures ­– whether student portfolios or other district tests ­ – in the evaluations of teachers of courses in which CSTs aren’t given, such as first grade, art and seventh grade science.

Signal to other districts

Chalfant’s ruling would apply only to Los Angeles Unified, although other Superior Courts could cite the ruling. Nonetheless, Lucia said that the message to other districts is that “a district cannot omit the progress of kids in job performance of adults.” The goal, he said, “should be a better determination of effectiveness that allows limited resources to be targeted to those teachers needing the most improvement.”

Attorneys for UTLA and the district could not be reached for comment on Monday.

UTLA argued in its brief that a dispute over requirements in the Stull Act belonged before the Public Employee Relations Board, not a court, and that any requirement for the use of test scores or other measures must be negotiated.  But Chalfant wrote that first and foremost, the district must comply with state law, regardless of the contract it reached with the unions.

The position of the district, on behalf of the school board, was confusing. Last year, in defending the  pilot program using AGT, the district  said it had the authority to impose the terms of evaluations without union negotiations. Even though Deasy testified that test scores and student progress weren’t part of staff evaluations, the district fought the EdVoice lawsuit.

In its brief, the district asserted that the use of AGT in the pilot satisfied the law’s requirement to use state standardized test scores – even though they have yet to be applied, with consequences, to any teacher. The district also asserted that it uses results on district and state tests and other student measures to set goals for teacher instruction and measure improvements in the classroom.

But Chalfant ruled that that’s not sufficient. “There must be a nexus between pupil progress and the evaluations. No such nexus currently exists.”

“This does not mean that there must be a box on a form which directly addresses pupil progress,” he wrote. “It does mean that pupil progress must be reflected in some factor on a written teacher evaluation.”

Whether pupil progress – AGT alone or in combination with other student growth measures ­ – counts 20 percent or 30 percent of an evaluation, as Deasy has advocated, must be decided through negotiations, unless the district asserts a right to impose AGT unilaterally.

Villaraigosa’s Stull Act amendment

In 1999, when he was state Assembly speaker, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sponsored an amendment updating the Stull Act  to require the use of CST scores in teacher evaluations. Villaraigosa submitted a brief supporting this position.

Chalfant incorporated some of Villaraigosa’s points in explaining the rationale for his decision. In 2009-10, 99.3 percent of teachers evaluated received the highest evaluation rating, with 79 percent meeting all 27 measures of performance. This despite that the district “has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the State, and an even lower percentage of students are college ready.”

“These failures cannot be laid solely at the feet of the District’s teachers,” Chalfant cointinued. “Students must want to learn in order to do so, and some students can never be motivated to learn. But the District has an obligation to look at any and all means available to help improve the dismal results of its student population. One means of improving student education is to evaluate teachers and administrators based on the overall progress of their students.”

Judge OKs Prop 98 shell game

A Superior Court judge last week lopped a limb off Proposition 98. Fans of Monty Python might have been amused; school districts will not be.

The three-paragraph ruling by San Francisco Superior Court Judge Harold Kahn simply reaffirmed a tentative ruling he issued in March. Back then he ruled that nothing prevents the governor and Legislature from shifting money out of the General Fund, even if that in turn leads to less funding for K-12 schools and community colleges under Proposition 98, the law setting minimum funding for schools.

The loss is significant. As part of the 2011-12 state budget, Gov. Jerry Brown transferred about $5 billion in sales tax and vehicle license fee revenues to a special fund as part of his shifting of state safety and social services to counties and cities. Had the money stayed in the General Fund, roughly 40 percent, or $2.1 billion, would have gone to the Proposition 98 guarantee.

The California School Boards Association, the Association of California School Administrators, and three school districts sued, claiming that was an illegal diversion of money owed schools. Their attorneys argued that voters passed Proposition 98 in 1988 to prevent manipulation of minimum dollars owed schools. Legislators could suspend the minimum obligation with a two-thirds vote, while acknowledging that the money owed had to be restored over time. They didn’t do this. Or, if they still wanted to set up a special fund outside of the General Fund, they could pay a higher percentage to schools of a diminished General Fund. Lawmakers didn’t do this either.

Kahn didn’t put enough in writing to fathom his thinking, but during oral arguments in March he implied that if drafters of Prop 98 had wanted to prevent the siphoning of money through special funds, they would have put it into the initiative. Lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that the intent of voters was clear: a minimum funding level that shouldn’t be tampered with.

ACSA and the CSBA haven’t decided whether to appeal Kahn’s ruling. Superior Court decisions are not cited by other courts as precedent-setting decisions, so there’s always a gamble going to the Court of Appeals. Meanwhile, Brown plans further tampering with Prop 98 if his tax initiative fails in November. He is proposing to stuff $2.6 billion in school construction bond payments, which had been funded as part of the non-Prop-98 part of the General Fund, into Prop 98. In effect, that would create a cut in funding for schools.

Though the circumstances are different, Kahn’s ruling will encourage these types of manipulations.

Parcel taxes beat the odds

Voters remain up in the air about passing a statewide tax to help schools, according to recent polls. But given a chance to support local schools exclusively, more than two-thirds of voters in nine school districts said yes – a wide enough margin to pass a parcel tax. Even the four parcel taxes that lost got over 60 percent support and would have passed had the threshold for passage been 55 percent – an idea that’s been kicking around for years but can’t get out of the Legislature for lack of Republican votes. *

Voters on Tuesday passed  23 of 34 school construction bond proposals. Source: Michael Coleman, League of California Cities. (click to enlarge)
Voters on Tuesday passed 23 of 34 school construction bond proposals. Source: Michael Coleman, League of California Cities. (Click to enlarge)

Also in Tuesday’s primary, voters in 23 K-12 districts passed nearly $2 billion worth of school construction bonds, a strong commitment in uncertain times. A piece of that money in some districts will go toward upgrading technology, critical as districts move toward implementing Common Core standards with digital textbooks and computer-administered assessments. Bond measures in an additional 11 districts were rejected, although a few came tantalizingly close to the 55 percent needed for approving school bonds.

For 2012, 13 of 18 parcel taxes have passed; that’s 72 percent, which is higher than the historical passage rate of 58 percent. Among the losers on Tuesday were a $54, four-year parcel tax in Santa Barbara, which would have replaced a $50 tax due to expire next year, and a parcel tax in West Contra Costa Unified based on a home’s size – 10.2 cents per square foot. But voters there can get another chance, if the school board is inclined, since the existing 7.2 cents per square foot won’t expire for two years.

Parcel taxes are one of the few ways that school districts can raise money. They’re predominately found in high-cost Northern California, especially the half-dozen counties in the Bay Area, with a smattering in wealthy districts around Los Angeles. Most parcel taxes are under $100, especially initial parcel taxes. The exceptions on Tuesday were an eight-year, $458 tax in Ross Valley School District in Marin County, replacing a $309 parcel tax, and a $123, eight-year tax for elementary and high schools in Santa Cruz; it passed with more than 80 percent of the vote.

Because of the passage of Proposition 13, parcel taxes cannot be based on a property’s value. Because McMansions, cottages, and office buildings are all charged the same, parcel taxes are regressive, unrelated to an ability to pay. So it’s ironic that both tax initiatives on the November ballot, which would raise money by raising the graduated income tax (Gov. Jerry Brown’s would also include a ¼ cent increase in the sales tax) are doing far worse than the parcel taxes and bond measures. Attorney Molly Munger’s Our Children, Our Future tax would send money directly to schools – essentially what parcel taxes do – though that feature is not widely known.

Voters favor local control with their money, which appears to be why parcel taxes, for all their faults and limited geographical range, continue to do well.

* Thanks to Mike McMahon, school consultant and trustee of the Alameda Unified School District, who tracks historic and current information on parcel taxes and other school data.