Warming up to an NCLB waiver

John and Kathy co-wrote this post from Sacramento.

For the second time in as many months, the acting Assistant Secretary of Education came to California  to call on the State Board of Education to apply for a waiver from most of the requirements and penalties of the No Child Left Behind law. All but ten states have either formally applied for a waiver or indicated they would in the next round. California is the only one of the ten that Michael Yudin has visited.

“Our effort here is to release the pressure valve of No Child Left Behind,” Yudin told the State Board on Wednesday, noting that 3,900 schools in California already face sanctions under NCLB’s Program Improvement designation. “We are creating the opportunity to create space and remove barriers to allow states to be innovative and creative.”

Yudin’s pitch seems to be working. Just two months ago, Board members were skeptical of the costs and the conditions that would come with the waiver and declined to take any action.

On Wednesday, they directed staff at the state Department of Education to start gathering information for a potential vote at their next meeting in March on applying this summer.

Even State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson now seems amenable. When Education Secretary Arne Duncan first proposed the waivers in September, Torlakson balked at what he projected to be a $2 billion cost and rigid conditions for meeting the waiver.

“If the administration understands the complexity and the diversity of the state of California, and the financial pressure we’re under, we would design a customized waiver. I believe there is opportunity here,” said Torlakson.

As Torlakson knows, without a waiver no Title I school in California will meet NCLB’s demand that every student score proficient on the California Standards Test. When that happens, they’ll also lose control over a significant portion of their Title I dollars and face a narrow range of federally prescribed improvement options.

Concern over losing that money drew nearly a dozen superintendents from around the state to Sacramento yesterday to plead with the Board to seek a waiver.

“This is a point of desperation,” said Sanger Unified Superintendent Marc Johnson, whose tiny 11,000-student district stands to lose control of $500,000. Sanger has been using that money on its own intervention programs, which he credits with increasing the district’s high school graduation rate to 94 percent.

“Children in this state will be harmed because of the failure of state agencies to take action and embrace this,” said Johnson.

He and the other superintendents said the Board needs to be aware of the demoralizing effect of having schools be labeled as failures and the burdens that come with sanctions.

Waivers wouldn’t even be an issue if Congress had reauthorized NCLB five years ago, as it was  supposed to. There’s a consensus on Capitol Hill and in the Obama Administration that the bill has major flaws that have to be fixed. Yet there’s little chance of that happening before the November election.

Strings are attached

The Obama Administration is offering states the opportunity to create their own school improvement models, but with new conditions that in some ways are more far-reaching.

  • Teacher and principal effectiveness: Every teacher and principal must be evaluated using multiple factors including, for teachers, their ability to boost student test scores;
  • A new accountability system for closing the achievement gap: The Administration wants the states to develop interventions for students in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and, in a new requirement, for students in schools with the largest achievement gaps – 900 schools in California.
  • Accelerated implementation of Common Core standards and career and college readiness standards: The state is well on its way to meeting these requirements.

Several of these and other factors have given the Board pause. A key concern is that these conditions – especially teacher and principal evaluations – would become mandates for all schools, not just Title I schools, which the state would have to fund.

Board members also pressed Yudin about what happens three years out when either the waiver ends or the federal government, under NCLB’s successor, seeks to impose new sanctions if they fail to meet the requirements of the waiver. Would they lose money or be reinstated in Program Improvement?

Yudin wouldn’t predict the future, given the uncertainty of possible partisan shifts in Washington, D.C.  But he did try to allay fears of the costs and stress the flexibility that California would have in designing its plan.

The California Teachers Association in particular has opposed any use of student test scores in evaluating teachers. But Yudin said that the federal government is offering a lot of latitude to the states. He noted that Massachusetts, a recipient of Race to the Top funds and one of the 11 states that has already submitted a waiver application, will only be using test scores to validate the accuracy of the other measures.

Meanwhile, Alice Petrossian, president of the Association of California School Administrators, promised the State Board that ACSA would take the lead in developing criteria for evaluating principals. For the past year, ACSA been working on the issue and potential legislation.

The cost of these programs, said Yudin, could in large part be borne by money the federal government is already providing to the state. This includes $268 million in Title II professional development money that could go toward teacher training for Common Core and teacher and principal evaluations. An additional $239 million in Title I dollars that Program Improvement schools currently have to set aside for federal interventions would be freed up for the alternative plans that the state would create.

Despite these assurances from Yudin, several Board members remained uneasy about potential costs to the state and the short two-to-three-year timeline to get all these new statewide programs up and running. “Would you relax requirements to move forward in a timely way because of the fiscal constraints facing states?” Carl Cohn asked Yudin.

Yudin said the states would have a lot of leeway in what they propose as long as the plans are implemented statewide within three years; however, he emphasized that this is not a competition where states will be scored against one another.

“I do believe that it is an iterative process,” said Yudin. “We will do everything we can to help states.”

Pushing aside reservations was Board member Yvonne Chan, the principal of a national blue ribbon charter school that is now in Program Improvement. “I strongly urge you to think outside the box,” Chan, whose term ends this week, urged her colleagues on the Board.

In Chinese, opportunity is two words, explained Chan, holding up a slip of paper on which she had written Chinese characters. “The first stands for risk, the second for success. No risk, no opportunity, folks. If we wait for everything to be absolutely perfect we’re never going to do it,” said Chan.  “If we can have this collective confidence in ourselves, then we can fix this, we can come up with new solutions for these persistent problems.”

Congress must demand effective teachers for all students

Congress is debating this week whether to turn back the clock on advances for our most vulnerable students that were part of the legacy of No Child Left Behind.  At stake is whether our legislators believe teachers should be required to complete a minimum level of training and demonstrate competence before they enter the classroom — and especially whether poor and minority students, English language learners, and students with disabilities deserve equal access to such well-qualified teachers.

To provide some history, for years advocates and reformers have been pointing to the large achievement gap between black and Latino students and their white and more affluent peers, which has stayed stubbornly large since the Reagan reforms wiped out the educational investments and anti-poverty programs that had caused the gap to shrink significantly in the 1970s.  In addition to the effects of increased childhood poverty and lack of health care, this gap has been exacerbated by a system that spends less on the schools that serve poor children and that frequently offers them the least qualified teachers and principals.

Beginning in the late 1980s, as dwindling and unequal salaries caused growing teacher shortages in poor districts, states were encouraged to lower standards for entering teaching in these communities rather than increasing salaries or improving working conditions.  In California, nearly 50 percent of the state’s new teachers entered without training, virtually all of them assigned to teach in high-need schools.  By the 1990s, it became common in some states for segregated schools serving high-need students in urban and rural areas to be staffed by a revolving door of inexperienced and untrained teachers.

This is one of the problems that NCLB tried to solve when it called for highly qualified teachers in all schools. States and districts were required to put in place recruitment and retention plans to ensure that schools could be staffed by teachers who knew their subject matter and how to teach it.  Many states proved that they could greatly reduce teacher attrition and the need for emergency hires by equalizing salaries between rich and poor districts, offering scholarships to attract candidates to high-need fields and locations, and improving mentoring for beginners.  For example, North Carolina’s Teaching Fellows program paid for the preparation of hundreds of talented candidates who pledged to teach for four years in the state’s schools, bringing long-term talent into the education system to teach math, science, and other critical subjects.  Other successful examples include the teacher residency model and “grow your own” programs,  in which teachers are fully trained and prepared with tools they need to be effective and then given the support they need to stay in the classroom.

But the Bush administration responded to recalcitrance from some by watering down the law to allow teachers who had just begun training in alternate routes to be called “highly qualified” even though they had minimal to no training and had met no standards of teaching competence.  This encouraged the ongoing concentration of untrained novices in schools serving the neediest students, without public accountability or any requirements to solve the underlying problem.  In California, for example, more than two-thirds of interns teach in highly segregated schools that serve more than 75 percent minority students, and more than 50 percent seek special education credentials.

When low-income and minority parents and students sued the federal government to challenge this administrative interpretation and won, their victory was short-lived.  Within a few weeks and with no public notice or debate, Congress last year enacted an amendment — its sole amendment to NCLB in the 10-year history of the law — to write the unlawful Bush-era regulation into statute.  In so doing, Congress labeled teachers-in-training in alternative route programs as “highly qualified,” condoned their disproportionate concentration in low-income, high-minority schools, and permitted states and districts to hide these facts from parents and the public.

Meaningless definition

The Harkin/Enzi bill builds this troubling amendment into the fabric of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization bill.  While the bill maintains NCLB’s “highly qualified teacher” terminology, its definition of the term to include teachers-in-training sets a standard so low as to make the phrase virtually meaningless and its protections for at-risk students nearly nonexistent.  Even more troubling, the bill’s “highly qualified teacher” standard applies only to teachers in their first year or so, after which the bill abandons teacher qualifications to focus on teacher evaluation results in states that have implemented evaluation systems.

Some would say that the new provisions for evaluation systems make any attention to teachers’ initial qualifications unnecessary.  But this “effectiveness only” approach ignores the reality that states’ evaluation systems won’t be up and running for at least a few years, and, once implemented, will require a few years of classroom data from which to determine an individual teacher’s effectiveness.  (We put aside, for the moment, whether the teacher evaluation standards set forth in the bill will result in valid and reliable measures of teacher effectiveness.)

The Harkin/Enzi proposal will allow untrained teachers to teach for years before their effectiveness is  measured.  That’s unacceptable.  Students deserve teachers who are both fully-trained to teach on their first day in the classroom and, if they stay, who prove themselves effective at educating children.  In the words of Candice Johnson, a student in South-Central Los Angeles who experienced first hand the effects of this misguided federal policy and visited Congress last spring to demand it be changed: “Why is it OK for students like me to be taught by teachers-in-training? If intern teachers are good enough for me, why aren’t they good enough for the students down the road in Beverly Hills?”

Congress cannot pretend that it really cares about closing the achievement gap or providing equal opportunities to learn if it refuses to address the fundamental right of every child to have a fully-prepared and qualified teacher who knows how to teach their subject matter effectively.

Fortunately, there’s still time for Congress to do the right thing.  When the ESEA is marked up in committee this week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will offer amendments to strengthen the definition of highly qualified teacher and end the practice of congregating the least prepared teachers in the highest need schools.  The Sanders amendments will also require that, where untrained teachers are hired to fill shortages, they be adequately supervised and that parents be notified when their child is being taught by such a teacher.  The amendment has the support of a coalition of 82 organizations — including ours.

Let’s hope Congress corrects the mistake it made last year and finally fulfills the promise to provide all students with qualified and effective teachers.  Our future depends on it.

John Affeldt is Managing Attorney at Public Advocates Inc. a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization that challenges the systemic causes of poverty and racial discrimination. He is a leading voice on educational equity issues and has been recognized by California Lawyer Magazine as a California Attorney of the Year, The Recorder as an Attorney of the Year and a Leading Plaintiff Lawyer in America by Lawdragon Magazine. This piece was co-authored by the following members of the National Coalition on Teaching Quality: Deborah Ziegler,  Council for Exceptional Children;  Susan Henderson, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund; Barbara Arnwine, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Brent Wilkes, League of United Latin American Citizens; Claude Mayberry, National Council on Educating Black Children; Wendy Puriefoy,  Public Education Network, and Robert Mahaffey, Rural School and Community Trust.

Veteran journalist to lead EdSource

Signaling a desire for a higher profile, new directions, and an interest in reaching a larger audience, the board of directors of the research and policy organization EdSource has hired veteran California journalist Louis Freedberg as its new executive director.

Freedberg is the senior education reporter at California Watch, the foundation-funded online investigative reporting news site and blog that he co-founded. He has written extensively about education policy in that job and at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was a columnist, education reporter, Washington correspondent, and editorial writer for more than a decade.

Louis Freedberg (California Watch photo)
Louis Freedberg (California Watch photo)

What stood out was Freedberg’s experience in building media partnerships at California Watch and at the California Media Collaborative, which he also founded, and in using new social media tools to expand impact, said Carl Cohn, a state Board of Education member and retired school superintendent who is EdSource’s board president. But what also impressed the board was Freedberg’s knowledge of immigration, criminal justice, health care, and other influences that have an impact on education. “I was very intrigued by his vast knowledge of other critical issues” that have been overlooked in recent years, Cohn said. “We should be having these discussions.”

“I’ve been thinking for a long time about how to reach Californians, to see what mobilizes people and readers,” said Freedberg. “One of the challenges is to show how issues affect them. With education financing and other aspects of education policy, so much has been at a high level of abstraction. We need to be smart in getting information to policy makers and the public” through interactive tools and collaborations beyond a single website.

Both Freedberg and Cohn said that EdSource will continue to do impartial, nonpartisan, unbiased research, its hallmark. But they also anticipate that EdSource will want to present reports and information that Freedberg described as “more aligned with the decision-making cycles in Sacramento so that it can have an impact on the debate.”

And when it reaches research-based recommendations, as it did in recent middle school studies, then it should make the case for them, Cohn said. “EdSource has the historical mission of not being an advocacy organization, but could it be edgier?”

“In my work as journalist, I relied on EdSource,” Freedberg said. “It has been invaluable to me. But how media presents information is also important now.”

Located in Mountain View, EdSource has about a dozen employees and has produced an impressive amount of research on education financing, charter schools, Common Core, STEM issues, and, more recently, community colleges. Its board is a cross section of Sacramento insiders (John Mockler; Sue Burr, executive director of the State Board of Education; and Ken Hall, founder of School Services of California), Ed Coalition representatives and ed reformers (charter school funder Reed Hastings and Don Shalvey, vice president of the Gates Foundation). It is funded by the Hewlett, Irvine, Stuart, and S.D. Bechtel, Jr. foundations, Hastings, and the California Teachers Association.

Freedberg, who has a PhD in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley, replaces Trish Williams, who’s retiring after running EdSource for the past 19 years. Williams, whom Gov. Jerry Brown has nominated to the State Board of Education, was the project lead in EdSource’s recent extensive middle school study. Freedberg starts his new job July 5.

It’s not business, it’s personal

It’s a measure of how worried and angry people are that nearly a hundred parents, students, educators, and policy makers gave up their Saturday to learn just how badly schools will be hit under Gov. Brown’s all-cuts budget, due out today, and to discuss some of the not-so popular solutions. Hoi Yung Poon, executive director and founder of Parents for Great Education, who organized the event, worried needlessly that “no one would show up.” The 21st Century Education Summit at De Anza College in Cupertino drew Silicon Valley Congressman Mike Honda and San Francisco Assessor Phil Ting. A group of Chinese American moms drove down from San Francisco with an interpreter, a parent organizer came up from Los Angeles, and a community college trustee flew in from Orange County.

Facing down Prop 13

Most speakers challenged the belief that extending the tax increases is the only way to solve the pending crisis in public schools. Ting in particular has been on a mission to stop the worshipping of one of California’s sacred cows: Proposition 13. He even has a website, called Close the Loophole, that’s devoted to eliminating the loophole that lets commercial property owners make improvements without paying increased taxes, because the property rarely changes hands.  Ting said there’s been a complete flip in property tax contributions as a result of Prop 13. In the 30 years since the initiative passed, property tax contributions have flipped in San Francisco from 59 percent paid by commercial property owners and 41 percent by homeowners, to 43 percent and 57 percent respectively. He estimates that taxing commercial property at fair market value could raise $7.5 billion a year.

Since Prop 13 passed, residential property owners in San Francisco have been paying more taxes than commercial owners. Click to enlarge. (Source:  San Francisco Assessor Phil Ting)
Since Prop 13 passed, residential property owners in San Francisco have been paying more taxes than commercial owners. Click to enlarge. (Source: San Francisco Assessor Phil Ting)

When asked how he would respond to businesses that argue they should be included in Prop 13 because they create jobs and improve the economy, Ting had a ready answer. He said Prop 13 was sold to Californians as a local measure to protect residents, but “consumers get no subsidy” from the tax break to commercial property owners.  He gave an example fro nearby Menlo Park.  “Draeger’s (an upscale supermarket) pays $66,674 in property taxes, while Trader Joe’s pays about $7,000 because the people who own Trader Joe’s land have handed it down to their heirs who live in Massachusetts.” Not only is the tax break going out of state, but local residents get no benefit, said Ting.  Plus, a gallon of milk at the Trader Joe’s in San Jose doesn’t cost any more than a gallon of milk at the Trader Joe’s in Menlo Park, even though that one is paying so much less in taxes.

“What we do in California is tax the hell out of new businesses and we don’t tax the windfalls that accrue on everyone else, said Ting.  “The benefits of the new business taxes goes to a windfall for the older businesses.”  Consumers, he added, get no subsidy.

Although Ting’s position isn’t yet universally embraced, it is gaining more vocal adherents. Mary Perry, the deputy director of EdSource, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education research organization, says the current funding structure isn’t sustainable, not with the changing mission for our public schools.  “To expect schools to innovate and change their paradigm and be more effective while they’re trying to figure out how to keep the lights on is a little disingenuous, a lot disingenuous,” said Perry.  “The restriction on state revenue on California’s ability to raise revenues for its local services that were created by Proposition 13 are due for reexamination.  If people understood the negative consequences for them personally and the economy as a whole it would not any longer be something sacred.”

Low-hanging fruit

Lenny Goldberg, with the California Tax Reform Association, said that just by going after the “low hanging fruit” the state could bring in several billion dollars:

  • $2.3 billion raising income taxes on the wealthiest 1% of Californians by 1%.  “The Bush tax cuts gave the top 1% in California $9billion in tax relief,” said Goldberg.
  • $1.3 billion from implementing a production tax on oil.  California is the only oil-producing state in the world without this tax, says Goldberg.
  • $1.3 billion from eliminating the corporation tax election, a new law that allows California companies to decide each year what formula they’ll use to pay taxes on their operations in the state.
  • Collecting taxes for online commerce, such as Amazon.
  • $1.7 billion by eliminating redevelopment districts and reallocating property taxes diverted to those districts to schools, cities and counties.
  • $900 million now and $500 million ongoing by eliminating enterprise zones.

Education funding is rooted in values

Not everyone put the blame on Sacramento or Washington, D.C.  “We are as responsible for the reason the system is broken as anyone,” said Cindy Chavez, executive director of the San Jose-based Working Partnerships USA, a social change organization funded by labor.  She said the uncompromising tone of political debate has turned a significant number of people against any taxes for any reason.  “I think it’s become so fashionable in this state and in this country to blame others that we’re going to kill this country and this state.”

What really irks Chavez is how the conversation about education funding is devoid of values.  When the purpose of school is discussed, she said it’s always about training students for jobs; the idea that education has value in and of itself isn’t discussed.  “In no environment has it worked to say ideology doesn’t matter,” said Chavez.  “We design political systems and economic systems with the idea that people are dispassionate.”

Map it

Parents advocates hope to bring out some of the passion, especially in parents, with a new mapping tool that shows how much their children’s district stands to lose under the worst-case scenario budget.  Click on the district and it shows the decrease per student and the total cuts to the district.

“I had an idea for some sort of tool that would show school funding information that was digestible,” explained Dr. Cynthia Liu, founder of a parent news site called K-12 News Network, who has been working with Parents for Great Education.  Liu is also hoping that seeing those numbers will inspire people to lobby their legislators. “We really need something that helps community understand the urgency and the severity of the cuts. It’s hard to be motivated without the facts and figures.”

Democratic group hires Romero

Democrats for Education Reform, a national organization that supports charter schools, Race to the Top, and President Obama’s education agenda in general, plans to open its tenth state chapter next spring in California. And it has hired Democratic state Senator Gloria Romero of Los Angeles, who was edged out in the June primary for state superintendent and is termed out this year in Sacramento, to direct the California operation.

DFER plans to open two offices, in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, and is raising $1 million to get off the ground. Its initial focus in California will not be on the Capitol, but on large urban districts, like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, and San Diego, where it will back candidates willing to stand behind DFER’s principles, national Executive Director Joe Williams said Monday. School trustee races are non-partisan, but in many urban districts the choice is often among Democrats.

DFER also could play a role once the state’s open primary law takes effect in June 2012. Under the new system, which voters passed  in June,the two top candidates in primary elections will face off in the November general election, regardless of their party affiliations. In some instances, that could pit a traditional union-backed Democrat against a moderate Democrat backed by independents and Republicans.

Nowhere in its statement of principles does DFER specifically mention teachers unions, but DFER believes the heavy influence of teachers unions has steered the Democratic Party off course. “Both political parties have failed to address the tragic decline of our system of public education, but it is the Democratic Party ­– our party – which must question how we allowed ourselves to drift so far from our mission,” its statement of principles reads. “Fighting on behalf of our nation’s most vulnerable individuals is what our party is supposed to stand for.”

In supporting more money for public schools, DFER will find itself allied with teachers unions, Williams said. But other positions, calling for more parental choice, mayoral control, teacher pay tied to performance, and authority of “principals and their school communities” to hire teachers – will pit the organization against the California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers, which are big funders of local  school board candidates and Democrats in the Legislature.

In Romero, DFER has found a Democratic leader who not only stood up to but also antagonized CTA. Romero led the effort to pass two elements of a bill this year that was to improve the state’s Race to the Top  application: the parent trigger, giving a majority of parents in a low-performing school the right to demand a charter conversion or other changes, and open enrollment, allowing children in the lowest 10 percent of schools to attend a school in another district. She also has become a big supporter of charter schools. In the June primary for state superintendent, CTA spent a couple of million dollars in the primary for state superintendent supporting Assembly member Tom Torlakson. Romero got 17.2 percent of the vote, 0.8 percentage point behind Torlakson and 1.6 percentage points behind Larry Aceves, a retired superintendent. The lesson from Romero’s defeat, Williams said, is that charter school operators and their supporters must become more politically active.

With strong ties to the Latino and the civil rights communities in Los Angeles, Romero could mobilize support for non-traditional Democratic candidates. Or she could become a lightning rod for opposition to DFER.

Founded three years ago, DFER has spent $17 million on advocacy, including contributions to candidates. The national DFER has backed U.S. Rep. George Miller of Martinez, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a charter school founder and advocate. This election, DFER is backing Andrea “Andie” Corso, a candidate for Sacramento City Unified trustee. Both DFER and the NEA are supporting U.S. Sen.  Michael Bennett, who’s in a tough re-election campaign in Colorado.

Venture capitalists and fund managers are heavily represented on DFER’s board of directors and board of advisers. In California, DFER is likely to hit up Reed Hastings and Eli Broad, two wealthy Democrats who fund charter schools, and EdVoice, a Sacramento-based, non-partisan advocacy organization with a similar mission to DFER.

Bring in new faces and voices to Sacramento for real change

Our electorate occasionally acts schizophrenic. Take the call for change. In the midst of one of our country’s longest running economic downturns, there’s a palpable anger against politicians and the political system. According to the rhetoric, they got us into this mess, and the answer is to boot them out. On Tuesday, this anger is likely to force a change of power in Congress – with Republicans taking over from the Democrats.

Outside of California, the role of the Tea Party in this process has been the focus of massive attention from the press and the political system. Longtime elected officials in other states lost their jobs to challenges from political novices channeling the anger of their constituents. Yet, the “change” promoted by Tea Party and other insurgent candidates has been more of a reaction to the “change” of the last two years. The same electorate that put Barack Obama in the White House to change Washington apparently has now turned its attention to rolling back that “change.”

In California, the call for “change” has had a nearly opposite impact. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the original Tea Party-like candidate. The recall campaign against Gray Davis was the original Tea Party-like insurrection. It was mounted by two talk show hosts who energized voters by playing on their desire to eliminate the infamous “car tax” and arrived on the heels of a major California recession. Schwarzenegger played up his image as a non-traditional Sacramento outsider who would blow up the Sacramento boxes and bring fundamental change to the state.

Yet, once installed in Sacramento, Schwarzenegger and his staff did little to distinguish themselves from long-time Sacramento insiders. This was particularly true when it came to the over 40 percent of the budget devoted to education. In good times, the Administration spent the extra dollars like drunken sailors, creating new grant programs to satisfy the parochial priorities of education special interests, including the governor’s own preferences for physical education equipment and band instruments. Does anyone remember the infamous P.E. and Music block grants? In bad times, they constructed, in collaboration with the Legislature, a series of budgets that did little in the way of systemic reform and simply passed debts and obligations to future generations.

As a result, when it comes to the 2010 governor’s race, Californians seem to be far less interested in “outsiders” than we used to be. Based on recent polling, the gubernatorial candidate who has held more statewide and local elected offices than anyone else in California apparently has pulled away with a double-digit lead over his non-traditional opponent. Californians appear to be pining for insiders instead of outsiders. Once Americans get a real sense of what the Tea Party means, the same thing might happen nationally – especially when they realize how quickly the outsiders turn into insiders.

In the end, that’s the problem in California. Insider or outsider, elected officials quickly get trapped in the Sacramento quicksand. Last week, I was at a meeting of statewide education reform advocates from 20 other states. The progress many of those states have made in the areas of teacher evaluation,  evaluation, tenure and pension reform, and school turnarounds was amazing. The contrast with California couldn’t have been starker.

Sacramento insiders like to paint the California electorate as the problem. And, certainly, we have clotted up our state budget process with too much initiative-driven spending. But I would argue that our state’s real problem isn’t its citizenry but the longtime Sacramento insiders and their institutional culture. Part of the issue is a candidate selection and primary process that gives us politicians who reflect the extremes of their parties rather than the great mass of voters in the middle. Recent initiatives creating the open primary and non-partisan redistricting may result in a more moderate set of politicians from both parties.

It’s possible that these politicians will be less beholden to the public employee unions on the left and the taxpayer associations on the right, and that this independence will give them the room to make decisions based on the long-term needs of all Californians rather than personal, short-term political objectives or the desires of special interests. But without an end to, or minimally an extension of term limits, it is still likely that even our most forward-thinking elected officials will become overly dependent on the institutional knowledge of the longtime Sacramento insiders — the unelected lobbyists and staffers who really run things and want to maintain the system they’ve built.

In order for change to stick, our newly elected officials must commit to bringing some new voices and faces into Sacramento. We need to tap the wellspring of talent from different parts of California and other states, including different sectors from business to philanthropy, and bring some of that new thinking into our Capitol.

In looking for educational leadership, we should be looking outside of the traditional education blob and their old boys and girls networks. Looking to great district and local leaders who not only acknowledge the existence of our broken college and career pipeline, but are doing something to fix it, is a good place to start. We also need to bring in the reform voices and leadership of California’s new “majority minority” demographic and collaboratively commit ourselves to real change on behalf of all of our state’s children.

Otherwise, the change we experience will be in name only.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust-West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional and VISTA volunteer in California, New England and  Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

Two parent activist groups go live

Faster than you can say Educacy, one of the three founders of a group of activist parents in Silicon Valley has split off and created a separate non-profit organization.

Both Educacy and Parents for Great Education went live with their websites earlier this week. Both have similar missions: to engage parents interested in reforming K-12 schools. Each will go about it differently.

Educacy’s thrust will be advocating for changes in state education policy; Parents for Great Education will initially focus on grassroots organizing and new voter registration, according to Executive Director Hoi Yung Poon of Cupertino.

She, Kay  Louie of Redwood City, and Steffanee Taylor of the Evergreen area of San Jose quit their full-time jobs to found Educacy over the summer. Hoi Yung Poon left to create Parents for Great Education earlier this month.

Both groups have reached out to parent leaders in other Bay Area school districts, and to Educate Our State, a similar organization in San Francisco. Both groups say they have a core of volunteers at work. Educacy, which has an abundance of useful information on its website, already has 250 members in its Google discussion group.

Parents for Great Education will kick off its Vote for Our Future registration drive this weekend at the Silicon Valley Fall Festival in Cupertino. Educacy’s first big event will be a symposium on Saturday evening, Oct. 23, “California Schools: The Mess We’re in and How to Get Out,” hosted by PBS NewsHour education correspondent and author John Merrow. It will likely be held in San Jose.

The groups’ leaders profess the hope that they will complement, not compete with, each other. There’s certainly enough work to go around. To make a difference – certainly to change the way the state funds its schools – parent groups will need to work together.

ACLU sues over HS course fees

American Civil Liberties Union affiliates in California have sued Gov. Schwarzenegger and the state over class fees, from textbooks to AP exams to gym uniforms, that dozens of school districts routinely charge students.

The class-action lawsuit, filed Friday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, charges that mandatory course-related fees violate the state constitution’s guarantee of a free public education and a state court decision, Hartzell vs. Connell, in 1984, also banning fees for other school activities, which districts appear to be ignoring.

The suit asks for an immediate injunction against charging students for any costs for credit courses and for the state to create regulations and an enforcement system to ensure districts comply. ACLU attorneys for  student plaintiffs also plan to send cease-and-desist orders to the 32 school districts named in the lawsuit.

The list is far from comprehensive. The ACLU compiled it by surfing for fees on high school web sites. A sampling includes $125-$150 for lab fees at Northwood High in Irvine, $86 for AP exams that many high schools require as part of a student’s grade; $20 to $25 for arts courses in Arcadia High; $535 for a cosmetology class at Calaveras High; $20 for foreign language workbooks at Dougherty Valley High in San Ramon; and $5 for PE locker at Half Moon Bay High.

The 24-page complaint cites the cases of two unidentified plaintiffs. It alleges Jane Doe was embarrassed in class because she was late in paying fees while Jason Roe started school without a chemistry manual and a Spanish workbook because his family could afford only some of his fees. What the suit cannot determine is the number of low-income students who may have avoided college-required A-G courses because of fees or students who were less competitive in applying to college because they couldn’t afford fees for extracurricular activities, from band to sports. The suit doesn’t incorporate those activities, only credit courses.

Some schools have been charging fees for years; others have raised them recently in response to budget cutbacks.

Mark Rosenbaum, legal director for the ACLU-Southern California, said districts’ hardship is no excuse. “It’s in the worst times that students without means need to be protected,” he said in an interview. “And now is the time to say that the system of financing schools in California is broken and needs to be reformed.”

The ACLU’s action is the latest of several funding-related lawsuits filed this year. The state PTA, attorneys for poor students and associations representing school boards and school administers filed Robles-Wong vs  California, challenging overall funding levels. Public Advocates, representing low-income students, filed a similar lawsuit. And Public Counsel Law Center has sued Los Angeles Unified over the disproportionately large teacher layoffs at low-income schools.

Some of the schools in the ACLU lawsuit make allowances for students who can’t afford course charges. But citing the Hartzell case, the complaint says, “a fee waiver for students who are unable to pay required fees or purchase assigned materials does not remedy the constitutional defect of such fees.”

Other schools refer to the charges as “requested contributions.” Rosenbaum said that new regulations would have to ensure that school fund-raising is not coercive and individuals who don’t make donations aren’t identified or singled  out.

Donations are salve for painful cuts

Every day, the budget picture seems to get worse for schools in California. In the last two years alone, schools have been cut by $17 billion, with another $2 billion in cuts proposed for 2010-11. Schools face cuts to libraries, and arts and music programs, as well as increased class sizes. Not surprisingly, some parents are fighting back by raising private funds to replace lost state funding.

Last spring, a group of parents in Cupertino Union School District raised $2 million to fund teacher salaries and keep their elementary school class sizes low. At San Francisco’s McKinley Elementary, parents are cheering after an anonymous donor wrote a check for $85,000 to save a Spanish language program at the school for this school year.

Parents contributing money to fund classroom needs isn’t new – the bake sale or car wash is a longstanding tradition in schools. But in today’s economic climate, parents are raising serious money to fund core educational programs, and this raises troubling questions about equity.

In San Francisco Unified, PTA officers estimate that parent fundraising contributes several million dollars a year to local schools, over and above the programs funded by several private foundations supporting our 55,000 students. The problem is that fundraising varies widely from school to school. A high-needs elementary school in one part of the city might raise $10,000 a year, while a similar-size school in a more affluent neighborhood might easily raise several hundred thousand dollars. The school district attempts to balance that disparity by using a weighted student formula, allowing state categorical funding to follow the highest-need students, but the unfortunate reality is that the higher-need schools feel the brunt of state budget cuts first.

This year, the inequities are particularly pronounced, because some PTAs are raising record amounts to fill the gaps at their schools. Sherman Elementary, one of the school district’s most sought-after programs, stepped up its efforts and raised $200,000 in 2009-10 – a 40 percent increase over the previous year. The extra funds will restore two teaching positions and provide a cushion for the school’s many parent-funded extras like a garden and a thriving arts program. The disparity between the programs offered at some sites and not others became so troubling to a group of parent leaders that they approached a local foundation, the San Francisco Schools Alliance, proposing a matching fund system that would ask local businesses and individuals to “match” funds raised by all the PTAs in the district, and then divide those funds equally among all the schools according to enrollment. Plans for the fund are moving ahead, but no one really knows how much more money can be raised by private donors in San Francisco.

Limitations of private funding

And there’s the rub: raising private money to offset state cuts is a great solution in the short run (at least for those communities that have adequate wealth),  but is it sustainable or even desirable? Does it create equitable opportunities for all students?  I would say no. A recently-filed lawsuit argues that the state’s system of funding schools is unsound, unstable, insufficient and unconstitutional, and I agree.

Returning to a system of local funding and local control is part of the solution, but as a trustee of an urban district, I remain concerned that needier students will be shortchanged if we simply localize funding without acknowledging that current funding levels are not sufficient. As a state, we need to take a hard look at what we collectively expect our schools to do, and what those expectations actually cost.  New York did this, and after a successful school funding lawsuit, has added billions – yes! – to its education budget. According to Education Week, New York’s average per student expenditures are more than $5,000 higher than California’s.

If individual communities want to go over and above our common expectations, and people in those communities are willing to tax themselves to pay the premium, they should be able to do so (and without a supermajority!). But let’s at least make sure that we fund our schools at a level that meets the minimum expectations of all Californians. What’s good enough for New Yorkers should be good enough for us!

Rachel Norton has served on the San Francisco Board of Education since January 2009. Before her election to the school board, she served as San Francisco Unified School District Community Advisory Committee for Special Education, and as an active volunteer for Parents for Public Schools – San Francisco. In her professional life, she has worked as a writer and editor for Reuters Plc, The New York Times, CNet and Fora.tv.

San Diego and San Jose rated reform-resistant

San Diego and San Jose are unrivaled as hubs of innovation in high tech, green tech and biotech. But in terms of fostering a climate for education innovation, San Jose is no Silicon Valley, and San Diego is in the Rust Belt with Detroit and Gary, Indiana.

At least that’s view of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which ranked those two metropolises near the bottom of 26 major cities in the study America’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Reform: Attracting Entrepreneurs and Change Agents, which was released today.

Los Angeles didn’t fare much better, ranking 18th, but San Francisco, San Jose’s neighbor,  grabbed the #10 rank on the strength of its talent pool of social entrepreneurs and non-profit sector.

Continue reading “San Diego and San Jose rated reform-resistant”