Worser and worser

In case anyone needed more evidence that California public schools are in decline, this year’s annual report on learning conditions at California high schools is aptly entitled Free Fall: Educational Opportunities in 2011. UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access (IDEA) and All Campus Consortium on Research for Diversity (ACCORD), sent the survey to every high school principal in the state over the summer of 2010, and heard back from 227, just shy of 25 percent. As if anticipating the first question, the authors write up front, “The challenges facing California educators are not new, just worse.”

How much worse can it get than laying off teachers; closing libraries; eliminating counselors; losing art, music and drama; and squeezing 42 students into classrooms built for 32? The most vivid illustration probably comes from a principal in Riverside County, who told researchers her school can no longer afford to buy enough frogs for every student to dissect in science class, so now there’s just one which “the teacher shows on a document camera, and so that’s not really engaging learning.” That scenario could only be worse if her school was in Calaveras County.

UCLA Education Professor John Rogers, who is also director of IDEA, said the survey results are a representative sample of California public high school principals in 45 counties and include charter schools. He presented the four core findings in a Powerpoint during a news conference on Monday.

  • California high schools are providing less time, attention, and quality programs. As a consequence, student engagement and achievement and progress toward college are suffering,
  • School reform has all but sputtered to a halt due to staff cutbacks and the elimination of time for professional development,
  • California high schools face growing demand from families experiencing economic crisis at a time when the state is also considering cuts to its social welfare budgets,
  • Even as all high schools across the state are affected by declining budgets, inequality is growing across and within schools.

Some of the most compelling stories from the principals concern the impact of the economic downturn on students and their families. Paula Hanzel, principal of New Tech High in Sacramento, said she spends “about 75 percent of my day, every day, on families and kids in crisis.” Of the more than 2,500 students at George Washington Preparatory High School in Los Angeles, principal Todd Ullah said 90 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and between 200 and 300 are in foster care. “They do come to school each day,” said Ullah. “Many of them just to eat and have a meal.”

This inequality of educational opportunities due to poverty was at the root of the May 2000 class action lawsuit known as Williams v. California. The settlement agreement required the State Department of Education and other state agencies to provide students in the lowest-performing schools (which are usually the poorest as well) with equal access to instructional materials, safe and decent school facilities, and qualified teachers. “Has the underlying civil rights issue in the Williams case been exacerbated? I think it has,” said Tom Torlakson, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, who also participated in the news conference. “The disparities, the unequal education taking place in California, raises the issue of a larger Williams-type civil rights issue that our students are not getting an equal education in California, and this report documents it in many respects.”

One of the most affected areas is textbooks and other instructional materials. Under Williams, schools had to provide every student with a textbook for school and home use.  When the Legislature gave schools flexibility in categorical funds in 2009, textbooks were one of the pots of money put into the flex mix. That didn’t nullify the Williams agreement, but it did put more of the onus on parents and teachers to monitor their schools’ compliance.

Torlakson said the Department of Education surveyed district and county superintendents on how they’re spending their flex dollars and expects to have the results within a few weeks. He’s also promoting SB 613, a bill sponsored by Sen. Elaine Alquist (D-San Jose) that would change the definition of textbooks in the state education code to include digital materials, which can often be viewed for free online. Still, that requires that schools and students have access to the Internet, and, as Paula Hanzel says, that’s also becoming more of a challenge as schools have less money to buy and maintain computers and equipment. Hanzel says if there are any more cuts, her school may be New Technology High in name only.

Hidden costs of deferrals

I’m still in the hole to my teenage son for a little over $100. I promised him $25 for every A on his report card, with a $50 bonus for straight As.  Oh sure, I gave him some of it; I‘m not a complete deadbeat. But I deferred the rest.

Let’s set aside for now the wisdom of paying for good grades, especially since it’s been two years since our agreement, and he’s still waiting for the full amount. “Go get that video game you were counting on buying,” I told him. “Use some of your own money and I’ll repay you. I’m good for it, eventually.” Then a few days later I’d borrow a bit back, replacing it with an IOU and forcing him to ask his sister for a loan, which she happily gave him — with interest. But that’s his problem; I never agreed to cover interest.

Multiply this situation manyfold — let’s say enough to reach more than $9 billion — and you get a glimpse into one of the complicated budget challenges facing California schools today. It started in the 2001-02 fiscal year with the dot-com bust. Relatively speaking, it was a small delay; the state pushed a $1.1 billion payment to schools from June to July, the start of the next fiscal year. It worked so well, apparently, that lawmakers made it de rigueur in the budget process, approving $7.4 billion in deferrals through the current fiscal year, according to a policy brief by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office. Gov. Brown has proposed another $2.1 billion in deferrals for 2011-12.

On the upside, deferrals are a way to save district programs in tough economic times. “The state says, ‘You run the program, we’ll pay you later,'” explains Jennifer Kuhn of the LAO’s office. The problem, says Kuhn (and just about everyone else I spoke with), is that the state hasn’t been paying back the money on time in recent years. Deferrals are fine “if year-to-year growth in funding is sufficient to pay for the deferred payments as well as support all existing programmatic costs,” explains the LAO’s policy brief. However, if there’s not enough money to payback the deferred costs, then the state imposes another deferral to cover the first.  “This is essentially the situation that has occurred over the past few years,” writes the LAO.

The state is now deferring about a third of the Proposition 98 money owed to districts.  When those expected funds don’t come in, districts are forced to borrow money, and that costs even more. “We pay interest,” said Michael Hulsizer, head of legislative affairs for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools Office, who sent out a chart using bags of money to illustrate the give and take that makes it look like a bank heist gone bad. “The state has basically put the cost of borrowing on the districts,” said Hulsizer, who estimates the combined cost to districts at somewhere between $200 and $500 million in interest. (Click here to see chart on deferrals.) Yet taking out a loan is preferential to the other option available to districts that can’t afford to borrow; 20 percent of them have had to cut programs.

At the moment, however, Hulsizer is optimistic that the state has enough cash to pay districts the $7.4 billion in outstanding deferrals.  If that happens, it will be at the same time that another $2.1 billion deferral is scheduled to take effect. I don’t know about my son, but I feel a lot better about those IOUs.

Update: Dream Act on the move

The latest version of the California Dream Act passed the state Assembly’s Higher Education Committee on Tuesday. AB 130 and 131 would allow some undocumented students at the state’s public colleges and universities to apply for institutional financial aid and for assistance from the state’s Cal Grants program.

The bills were introduced by Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), who has made something of a career of trying to get a Dream Act approved in California. Four of his earlier bills made it through the assembly and senate but were vetoed by former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. A fifth was put on hold and died when the legislative session ended.

The bills “will help foster the development of future architects, doctors, teachers, scientists, and scholars that are key to the success of the California economy,” said Cedillo in a statement to the committee. “Public education is the lifeblood of our democracy that allows individuals to transform themselves within one generation.”

At least one opponent not only believes that undocumented students shouldn’t get aid, but also wants them to pay the full out-of-state tuition. Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R-Hesperia) has introduced a bill that would overturn AB 540, the 2001 law that allows undocumented students who graduate from a California high school and meet other requirements to pay in-state tuition at the University of California, Cal State University, and community colleges. Donnelly said AB 540 is costing the state tens of millions of dollars a year.

“At a time when we’re fighting over funds and eliminating access to college by driving up tuition, decreasing the number of classes offered and decreasing the number of spots, we should be putting our money where our values are,” said Donnelly.

According to the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst, however, most AB 540 students at UC and CSU are U.S. citizens or legal immigrants who went to high school in California, left the state for a few years, and then returned for college or graduate school.

The bills now head to the Assembly Appropriations Committee. A hearing date may be set by next week.

19,000 and counting

Wall Street has Black Monday, and now California teachers have Red Tuesday, so named because yesterday – Tuesday, March 15 – was code red for public education, the deadline for districts to issue layoff warnings to teachers. During a late afternoon news conference at Portola Elementary School in San Bruno, David A. Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Association, said they’d heard from 293 of the state’s 1,000 school districts and estimated that nearly 19,000 pink slips went out. He predicted that the number would rise to more than 20,000 by the time the final numbers are in. “In my 30 years as a kindergarten teacher, I have never seen such unprecedented cuts that are so deep and impact so many,” said Sanchez.

A rally sign (courtesy of Mike Myslnksi, CTA).
A rally sign (courtesy of Mike Myslinksi, CTA).

Whatever the final number released by the CTA, the actual figure will be even higher because the union only counts layoffs of permanent teachers, those who have been teaching for three or more years and have due-process rights. No one – not the CTA, not the State Department of Education or any of half a dozen agencies I called – keeps track of all the first- and second-year teachers who will be let go, and the temporary teachers working on one-year contracts as fill-ins and the like, even though they’re almost sure to disappear. A few phone calls to districts turned up some numbers: 164 in San Francisco Unified, 209 in Long Beach Unified, and 56 in San Jose Unified. Los Angeles Unified included temp workers in its 5,045 layoff notices.

“We’re here on a sad day,” said Tom Torlakson, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, at yesterday’s event in San Bruno. Yet, the mood in the school’s small multipurpose room seemed more feisty than gloomy as parents, teachers, and children, most wearing red shirts, waved hand-lettered signs reading, “Where’s Our Bailout,” and “Stop the Cuts,” and speakers challenged state lawmakers to do a better job.

“I will tell you that sometimes it means you have to risk your own future, and if that’s what it takes, that’s what we demand they do,” said Jill Wynns, incoming president of the California School Boards Association, in a dig at the Republican legislators who are so far keeping the governor’s $12.5 billion tax extension off the ballot.

Without the tax extension, there’s no chance that Gov. Jerry Brown will hold to his pledge not to cut K-12 education next year. According to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst, schools could lose $4.5 billion in a worst-case scenario; that’s on top of the $18 billion in cuts over the last three years. During that same three-year period 30,000 teachers lost their jobs, said Sanchez.

One of the big scares for next year, however, is that far fewer jobs will be saved than in recent years. For instance, 25,600 teachers received layoff warnings last year, but 10,500 of them were rescinded, in large part thanks to $100 billion in federal stimulus money to the states, which saved about a quarter-million teaching jobs nationwide. With that money gone, the doomsday scenario has moved in

CTA President David Sanchez said he had "never seen such unprecedented cuts that are so deep and impact so many” (photo courtesy of Mike Myslinski, CTA).
CTA President David Sanchez said he had "never seen such unprecedented cuts that are so deep and impact so many” (photo courtesy of Mike Myslinski, CTA).

This time around, some veteran teachers were caught off guard. “Three of us with tenure got pink slips,” said Kalasea Sanchez, a second grade teacher at Christopher School in San Jose’s Oak Grove School District. Sanchez is in her third year at the school, but has served on many committees and thought that experience might protect her. [Note: In Los Angeles Unified, the usual last in, first out procedure for laying off teachers was thrown out by a court for several dozen low-income, low-performing schools]. As of now, however, class sizes are heading up in Christopher School next year, going from the low 20s to 30 in kindergarten, first, second, and third grades. It’s a Title I school, more than half the students are English learners, and Sanchez says she’s always had some foster children in her classes. 

“I was thinking today, I had this student last year who was taken away from his mom when he was about 4 for drinking a bottle of Gatorade with meth in it,” recalled Sanchez. “I spent a lot of time with him and bonded with him; his mom turned her life around. Today I saw him and he ran up and gave me a big hug.” He still has many challenges ahead of him, and Sanchez says she worries what will happen when she leaves and he’s in a larger class with a teacher who doesn’t know anything about him or his family.

Teachers who were pink-slipped will find out in two months, on May 15, if their layoff notices will be rescinded. But some districts are waiting until late summer to begin their layoffs. The State Education Code allows districts to lay off teachers between five days after a state budget is enacted and August 15, if the total revenue limit hasn’t increased by at least 2 percent. This hasn’t typically been a reliable fallback for districts because they cannot rely on the Legislature passing a budget on time.

But Proposition 25, approved by voters last November, requires only a simple legislative majority – 50 percent plus one – to pass a state budget. Raising taxes still requires a two-thirds vote, so even if the tax extension fails to make it onto the ballot or is voted down, the Democratically controlled legislature and the governor could pass a budget with massive spending cuts, which may force school districts to cut even more teachers just weeks before the start of the new school year.

Beyond baking brownies

Cupertino is a fairly affluent city in Silicon Valley, so when the school district sent layoff notices to 107 teachers last year, a group of parents mobilized a massive fundraising effort to save those jobs. They raised more than $2 million in two months. But Hoi Yung Poon, who helped organize the campaign, realized that this type of fundraising wasn’t a long-term solution. “It wasn’t a sustainable plan,” said Poon. “Our focus is targeting and mobilizing parents in Silicon Valley and partnering with parents in other parts of the state.”

A handful of PTA parents in San Francisco public schools organized a town hall meeting on education on Feb. 25, 2010. It featured legislators, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, and KQED Public Radio’s Michael Krasny as moderator. Despite that firepower, the moms expected only about 100 people to turn out. They got more than a thousand and launched a new brand of parent activism with a reach well beyond the usual bake sales and other school volunteerism.

“We want to create a powerful parent lobby,” said Sherman Elementary School PTA member Holly Carver on a Comcast Newsmakers program.  “The line items are protected by powerful lobbies and we want to be that lobby for parents. We want them, when we come down to the hall, to say, ‘Oh, here comes the parent lobby.'”

About the same time, Teri Levy, the president of the PTA at Woodland Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles, felt compelled to take action to protect California schools from $2.5 billion dollars in cuts slated for 2010. She enlisted the help of fellow PTA member and actor Brian Austin Green and his girlfriend, actress Megan Fox. The result is a scathingly funny video, produced by Funny or Die, that went viral overnight.

In the year since those activities, new groups have formed, merged, partnered, and established themselves as legal nonprofits, building a grassroots network of parents in the tens of thousands. Teri Levy’s group, Say No to Cuts, joined with the Sherman Elementary moms and created Educate Our State, which then linked with the Sacramento-based Support California Kids. Hoi Yung Poon’s organization incorporated under the name Parents for Great Education. Their websites contain legislative updates, action plans, and links to detailed information about how California schools are funded.

The Kitchen Cabinet

At 9 o’clock on a recent Tuesday morning, the steering committee of Educate Our State is gathered around Susie Peyton’s sturdy kitchen table with plates of cookies, scones, and cupcakes in front of a window with views of San Francisco Bay. A few more moms, including Teri Levy in Los Angeles, join by phone. Crystal Brown, the main spokesperson, is doing some serious multitasking. Her laptop is open, and as she leads the meeting, she is also putting the finishing touches on a media advisory that needs to be emailed within a few hours to publicize simultaneous press conferences the next morning in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“Can we talk about what our key points are?” asks Linda Shaffer, during a discussion on how best to frame their message. “I think getting the message across that parents are organizing and we’re angry.” Over the phone, Levy adds, “I think the important thing is that it’s a group of parents working together across the state. It’s not like a local thing; it’s a statewide thing where parents have come together because they want a solution, because every single year we go through the same thing. The uncertainty of what’s happening with education is playing games with our children’s lives.”

Their message is already resonating with parents. Three weeks ago, Educate Our State launched a letter-writing campaign called “Let Us Vote,” urging the Legislature to place Governor Jerry Brown’s tax extension on the June ballot. To date, more than 35,000 letters have been sent, reaching every member of the Assembly and Senate.

Making an Impression

Still, it’s too soon to say what kind of impact they’re having. Shelly Masur has been on the Redwood City School Board for six years. Masur is an unofficial advisor to Educate Our State, so she’s not without bias, but she says lawmakers are beginning to feel the ripples of this nascent groundswell. “I met with a legislator on Saturday, and I asked, ‘Have you gotten a lot of letters about the tax extensions?’ And he said that according to his staff, he’s received over 250 letters,” said Masur.

The lawmaker in question is a Democrat, and the primary targets of the letter-writing campaign are the five GOP lawmakers who have not signed Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge, but who have also not committed to supporting the governor’s proposal. But Masur says it’s important for Democrats to hear from their constituents for two reasons: so they have compelling stories to tell during floor debates, and to be confident that they’re doing what their constituents want them to do.

The principal of Dianne Feinstein Elementary School, which hosted one of last week’s press events by the group, said that she’s never before seen any statewide parent movement, let alone one this big.

Groups like Educate Our State and Parents for Great Schools do rely on standard-bearers, like teachers’ unions and the PTA, for help, but have the benefit of working outside the structures and bureaucracies of those groups. It makes them more nimble and more bold. Hoi Yung Poon says her group can put together a call for action and email it to thousands of parents around the state within hours. There are no committees to go through and, says Poon, with a slightly mischievous tone, “no one can tell us what to say.”

District heavyweights to Capitol

This year’s day of action organized by the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) comes barely 24 hours before the day of reckoning for thousands of teachers.

On Monday, superintendents and principals from across the state will meet with legislators to urge them to set aside political infighting and do what’s right for the state’s children.  The next day, March 15, upwards of 17,000  teachers will receive pink slips informing them that they may lose their jobs.

The big push, of course, will be persuading two Republicans in the state Senate and two in the Assembly to break with their party and support Gov. Brown’s plan to place the tax extension measure on the June ballot. The proposal needs a two-thirds vote in the Legislature, and until yesterday, Brown and Democratic leaders thought they’d have those votes this week.  But by late Thursday, that time line seemed to be unraveling.   “The word on the street is ‘No,’ ” said Julie White, ACSA’s assistant executive director, referring to a vote before week’s end.

Talks are ongoing between Brown and five GOP lawmakers who refused to sign a Republican pledge never to raise taxes, but also haven’t committed to supporting the 12 billion dollar tax extension.  The funds are critical to the Brown’s pledge to spare schools from any additional cuts.  Although lawmakers have been told to remain in Sacramento for the weekend in case a deal is reached, White seemed certain nothing would happen before next week.

John Snavely, superintendent of Porterville Unified School District in Tulare County, plans to be at the Capitol on Monday.  He says there is more urgency than ever before due to the sheer magnitude of potential cuts coming on top of $18 billion in cuts over the past three years.

“Accountability has never been higher, yet the financial support for meeting the ever increasing diverse needs of today’s students decreases,” said Snavely.  “Public education is one of the state’s primary responsibilities.  It is my goal to urge our lawmakers to recognize that obligation and protect our children.”

DREAM on and on and …

Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) wants to disprove the notion that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Cedillo will try for a sixth time to pass a state version of the Dream Act. It’s a pair of bills, actually; AB 130 and AB 131 would let some undocumented students at California’s public colleges and universities apply for state Cal Grants and other financial aid from their schools. The twin bills are coming up for their first hearing on Tuesday, March 15, before the Assembly Committee on Higher Education.

To be clear, Cedillo has successfully shepherded the Dream Act through the Legislature four times since 2005. On each occasion, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bills, citing cost and fairness. “Unfortunately, given the precarious fiscal situation that the state faces, it would not be practical to adopt a new policy that could limit the financial aid available to students that are in California legally, in order to provide that benefit to those students who are not,” wrote Schwarzenegger in his last Dream Act veto message,

Gov. Jerry Brown, on the other hand, pledged during his campaign to support the Dream Act. During a rally with former President Clinton at UCLA last October, Brown told the crowd that he supported making college affordable for all students. “We have enough wealth to continue to have a great university and get every kid into this school that can qualify. Now when I say every young man and young woman, I mean everyone –whether they are documented or not. If they went to school, they ought to be here. And that will be one of the first bills I sign,” said then-candidate Brown, with the caveat that he won’t sign anything until the budget is approved. Yesterday, a spokesman for Brown reaffirmed his support of the “principles behind the Dream Act,” adding that the governor doesn’t officially weigh in on bills until he sees them in their final form.

Brown also voiced support for the federal bill. Although they share a name, the state and federal Dream Acts are very different entities. The congressional bill, titled the “Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (or DREAM Act), created a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who met certain age and education requirements. It also had several unsuccessful incarnations, most recently last December, when supporters (mostly Democrats) failed to end a filibuster (of mostly Republicans) in the U.S. Senate.

Since only the federal government can grant citizenship, Cedillo’s bills endeavor to make college more affordable for undocumented students. They would allow college students who meet the requirements for in-state tuition under AB 540 to apply for Cal Grants and for institutional financial aid or tuition waivers at UC, CSU, and community colleges. The state Legislative Analyst estimates that about 34,000 community college students would be eligible for tuition waivers if the bills pass. Cal State reported about 3,600 AB 540 waivers to the LAO.

AB 540 is the underpinning of the Dream Act. It establishes the criteria for eligibility. The student:

  • must have attended a California high school for three or more years (it doesn’t have to be consecutive years)
  • must have graduated from, or be about to graduate from, a California high school or have earned a state GED
  • must register for or already be enrolled at an accredited institution of public higher education in California (UC, CSU, community college), but not earlier than the fall semester or quarter of the 2001-02 academic year
  • who isn’t in the country legally must file an affidavit with their public college or university stating that he or she will apply for legal residency as soon as possible

AB 540 applies to any student who is not a resident of California, whether or not that student is a U.S. citizen. So someone who grew up in California and graduated from high school in their home town could move away for several years and still pay in-state tuition if they came back and enrolled in a state college or university. Exact numbers are hard to come by. Cal State and community colleges don’t track the legal status of their AB 540 students; however, community college officials estimate that most of their AB 540 students are undocumented. The University of California does keep a tally and publishes the numbers in annual reports. The most recent shows that about 70 percent of its 2,000 or so AB 540 students are either U.S. citizens or legal immigrants.

The lack of accurate data makes financial analysis a bit vague. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the lower tuition rate costs the state about $100 million a year, but that figure includes legal and undocumented students. A spokesman for Assemblyman Cedillo says the financial impact report on AB 130 and 131 won’t be prepared until the bill reaches the Appropriations Committee; but, in the past, the California Student Aid Commission has estimated that the Dream Act would provide an additional $38 million in Cal Grants.

The flip side is the amount of money that undocumented students would give back to the state if they were given the chance to earn a college degree and get a job. Researchers at UC Berkeley’s Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity and Diversity estimate that California would gain almost $15 million a year in additional revenue. Assemblyman Cedillo says there’s also a moral issue. In his floor speech while introducing an earlier version of the bill, Cedillo asked his fellow lawmakers what to do with these students who were brought to this country as children or babies, and lived up to their parents’ expectations by working hard to get into the top schools in the state. “What decision do we make? When they’re in school they pay the same tuition, but we make it illegal for them to apply for a scholarship. I say to you that that is not the response an enlightened legislature would want to embrace.”

States given a bit more flexibility

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called on state and local officials to be flexible and creative with federal education funds to protect students from the harshest cuts during this budget crisis. Duncan dubbed the nation’s financial woes “The New Normal” during a conference call with reporters on Thursday, and said states need to rise to this challenge.

“There is a right way and a wrong way to cut spending, and the most important guiding principle I can offer is to minimize the negative impact on students and seize this opportunity to redirect your spending priorities.”

The Department of Education sought to provide some guidance on how to do that. Duncan said they sent two documents to all 50 governors explaining that they can transfer money from education technology, teacher and principal training and recruitment, and after-school programs into areas where the local need is more critical.

“While we always seek the greatest return on investment for children and taxpayers, we believe states and districts are in the best position to tailor the use of federal funds to meet the individual needs of students,” said Duncan.

There was nothing new in the announcement. Secretary Duncan acknowledged that states have always had this ability under No Child Left Behind, but he said many of them either weren’t aware of it or needed a reminder. That’s not the case in California, which has been taking advantage of the flexibility since 2002, according to the Government Affairs branch of the State Department of Education.

Base layoffs on effectiveness

Duncan waded into more sensitive areas when discussing class size reduction and teacher layoffs. He echoed one of Bill Gates’ controversial calls, in a column this week in the Washington Post, to increase salaries for great teachers who agree to take on larger classes, and he cautioned districts not to rely solely on seniority when sending out layoff notices. “We’re challenging states and districts to use teacher effectiveness in the classroom as a factor in teacher layoffs,” said Duncan.  “Districts should not let go of effective young teachers because it’s the easiest path and they should not let go effective, higher-paid veterans to save money.”

Diane Ravitch on a mission

At age 72, Diane Ravitch has attained cult status among America’s teachers. They give her standing ovations when she’s introduced as a speaker, and again when she concludes her remarks. They come up to meet her and thank her, sometimes with tears in their eyes, for being such an outspoken and eloquent voice for the beleaguered profession. And they ask her to autograph her best-selling book, The Death and Life of the American School System, in which Ravitch broke with her conservative past and came out swinging against No Child Left Behind, school choice, and blaming teachers for all that’s wrong with public education.

“I’m not accustomed to this,” she told me during our interview for TOP-Ed (click here for Part 1 of the video and first half of the transcript and here for Part 2 of the video and remainder of the transcript ). “I’ve written for 40 years, and I’ve never had an experience like this.” Not that she’s complaining. Having a bestseller gives her the freedom to do what she wants, and, after a distinguished career as Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education and a scholar in what she describes as the “crème de la crème” of America’s conservative think tanks, Ravitch is content to have found herself in her new advocacy role at this time of her life.

“It’s my mission,” she acknowledged as we drove to her next speaking engagement – her fourth in 24 hours. But she chatted away energetically, still arguing against what she sees as a misguided education reform movement. “I think we’re living in an era that’s almost completely mean-spirited. I would call it insane, actually,” said Ravitch. “We never, until No Child Left Behind, thought that closing schools was a good way to improve them. It’s a stupid approach. We should be fixing the schools we have. We should not be just firing teachers wholesale, firing principals, closing schools. It doesn’t improve them.”

Her position may resonate with teachers, but lawmakers – of either party – are not exactly embracing it. While President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are considering changes to No Child Left Behind when the law is reauthorized,  their major initiative thus far, Race to the Top, holds teachers and schools primarily accountable for student learning, not poverty or family circumstances or massive budget shortfalls. It’s a wonder anyone would choose this profession, yet the United States will need at least two million new teachers within the next decade.

Ravitch sees teachers fighting back, as many have begun to in Wisconsin, where the governor wants to dismantle public employee unions’ collective bargaining process. “Teachers have been like a powder keg,” says Ravitch. Then, in echoes of the movie Network’s Howard Beale, she adds that “Wisconsin was like the flash point, where people could actually gather together and say, “We’ve had enough! We won’t take it any more!”

So what is it that would improve schools and student learning? When I asked Ravitch what her version of education reform would look like, the list was a mix of practical and philosophical. At the top is rethinking teacher recruitment, retention, and support and, within that, a loan forgiveness program for college students who go into teaching. That discussion, she says, should take place at the highest level, through a presidential commission.

Ravitch is quick to note that teachers were calling for similar reforms long before her conversion. “There are many people who have said to me, ‘I’ve been saying this for 10 years. Where were you?’ And I have to say, ‘You know, I’m a slow learner!'”

Data milestone for foster care

Researchers have linked two California databases in a rare undertaking that holds promise for helping the state’s 62,000 foster youth. The cross-pollination, announced earlier this month at the California Foster Youth Education Summit, connects California’s Child Welfare Database with Cal-PASS, the California Partnership for Achieving Student Success.

Cal-PASS partnered with UC Berkeley’s Center for Social Services Research on the pilot project, which matched students in foster care with those not in the foster system by grade, disability, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity. Researchers say the initial goal was just to see if it’s possible to connect the databases. Once they succeeded at that, they ran some numbers on educational outcomes for foster youth.

“It’s our hope that policy makers will use this to help inform policy development; they seem really hungry for this information,” said Lauren Davis Sosenko, associate director for special projects at Cal-PASS. Although participation in Cal-PASS is voluntary, it has sizable support: Every community college and 75 percent of school districts and public universities supply data. For this first attempt at linking, however, they studied just four counties: Fresno, Sacramento, San Bernardino, and San Diego.

Unexpected Outcomes

Despite the size of the sample, Sosenko said they were able to draw three major implications:

  • Foster youth not only scored lower than the general student population on the California Standards Test (CST), they also did worse when matched for key risk factors that hinder school success, such as disabilities, poverty, and certain ethnicities. In eighth grade math, just 19 percent of foster youth reached proficiency compared with 22 percent of similar students not in foster care and 34 percent of all students tested. This disparity held for all years of high school in English and for grades 9 and 11 in math.
  • Resources can make a world of difference. This may seem obvious on the surface, but the actual numbers are overwhelming. Foster youth in California’s community colleges who received financial aid were 136 percent more likely to remain in school than those who didn’t get money. So, you’d think they’d all be gobbling up the assistance, but that’s not the case. Many weren’t aware that the aid existed, and teachers and counselors, dismissing them as unlikely candidates for college, failed to provide the information. In a finding Sosenko called “criminal,” of the 5,492 foster youth in community college surveyed, only 16 percent received financial aid.  
  • Certain groups of foster youth are more academically vulnerable. Again, it’s the numbers more than the fact of the disparity that makes this so alarming. Disabled foster youth are 75 to 85 percent less likely to achieve proficiency on the California Standards Test than non-disabled foster youth.

Their findings weren’t exactly shocking news. Numerous studies have already shown what’s not working. But by connecting the dots, educators will be able to more accurately target services to specific groups of foster youth at different stages of their education, such as when to start talking about college, and to understand their unique challenges, such as how the number of times a child is moved from home to home affects their success in school.

“I worked with a kiddo yesterday who’s been in 21 schools and he’s 14; it’s hard to put together his educational history,” explained Michelle Lustig, coordinator for foster youth and homeless education in the San Diego County Office of Education.

The county office has had its own copyrighted data-sharing system in place for nearly five years (“September 19, 2006,” as Lustig precisely remembers), known as FYSIS, the Foster Youth Student Information System. Each of the 42 local school districts uploads academic data, which is matched electronically on a daily basis with information from juvenile court, probation, and the Child Welfare System/Case Management System.

The Challenge of Privacy

Access is carefully controlled only to those departments that are legally entitled to it, such as juvenile courts, which are required to monitor the academic process of students in foster care. Judges can pull up a student’s record and see in real time if the child has a lot of absences or is failing classes.

Privacy is a critical issue. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) contains strict regulations on who may see a student’s education records. But it’s also interpreted differently by different jurisdictions. The San Diego County Office of Education reads FERPA to say that information can be exchanged to comply with a judicial order or subpoena for health and safety, and for child welfare. However, that excludes data on discipline records like suspensions and expulsions.

FERPA proved more challenging for the Cal-PASS and Child Welfare System project. To make sure the project fell within the law, each student received a unique code that was not linked to either database; those codes were then encrypted before being sent to the researchers. But it proved to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, no one’s privacy was compromised; on the other hand, there’s no way to check back in a few years to see how the students are faring. That limitation won’t change in the next phase of the project, when Cal-PASS and UC Berkeley’s Center for Social Service Research expand to a statewide and longitudinal study.

Complement Not Compete With CALPADS

The promise of these data systems comes as problems continue with the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, the statewide student database known as CALPADS, which is way behind schedule. But neither Sosenko nor Lustig sees it as a competition. CALPADS will have a more robust data set, said Sosenko, because it’s a state-mandated system, and will collect more information from kindergarten through middle school, while Cal-PASS focuses more on the transition from high school to college. Moreover, CALPADS will provide a big-picture look at how foster youth are doing in school, while local systems like San Diego’s can pinpoint which individual students need help.

“I think there’s always been a tension in California around state-level data vs. local data, and at times that feels like it’s been put at odds,” said Lustig. “I don’t think it’s either/or; we need to see across the board how these students are doing rather than just how is Johnny doing, so I think both are great and needed and I hope that it happens.”


Did you know?

  • There are 62,000 foster children and youth in California
  • Three-quarters of foster youth work below grade level in school
  • Nearly 50% drop out of high school
  • One in four foster youth earn a GED instead of a high school diploma
  • More than a third of foster youth who “age out” of the system do not complete a GED or earn a high school diploma
  • Of the 4,000 foster youth who age out of care, 20% will attend college, but only 5% will graduate

Within the first 2 to 4 years after emancipation from foster care:
51% are unemployed
40% are on public assistance
25% become homeless
20% are incarcerated
Source: Child Welfare Dynamic Report System
American Bar Association, Center on Children and the Law
California Alliance of Child and Family Services
California College Pathways Program
California Foster Youth Education Task Force
Child Welfare System/Case Management System
County Welfare Directors Assn. of California Children’s Services
Fostering Media Connections
John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes
Legal Center for Foster Care and Education (part of ABA)
National Center for Youth Law
The National Center for Homeless Education
UC Berkeley Center for Social Services Research
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)