A common thread in education bills

All three bills designed to put California on steady footing for the coming of Common Core standards are now in Gov. Brown’s hands. State lawmakers yesterday approved the last of those measures along with measures that would require a common placement exam at community colleges, provide smoother passage for foster youth at state colleges, and grant relief for schools misidentified as failing.

Preparing for the common era

Assembly member Julia Brownley’s (D-Santa Monica) bill, AB 250, gets the process rolling for California to develop curriculum frameworks and assessments that are aligned to the coming Common Core standards.

The State Board of Education adopted Common Core state standards in English language arts and math last year, but until now California hasn’t had a process in place to align the curriculum, instructional materials, and student testing with the new standards, said Brownley in a statement issued after the vote.

“The Common Core state standards establish clear goals for learning to provide students with 21st century skills they need for success, such as critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and creativity,” said Brownley. “Once we implement these standards we will be able to compare the academic achievements of California students with those of students across the country.”

As we reported here last week, Brownley’s bill also postpones the end of the state’s Standardized Testing and Reporting program, or STAR, by a year, until January 1, 2015, when it will be replaced by the new student assessments developed for Common Core.

The bill requires the State Superintendent of Public Instruction to work with the State Board of Education to develop model professional development training in the new frameworks and standards for teachers and principals.

Her bill also does something very uncommon in government; it simplifies a few things. Currently, the group that that recommends curriculum frameworks to the State Board of Education and develops criteria for evaluating those materials is called the Curriculum Development and Supplemental Materials Commission. AB 250 renames it the Instructional Quality Commission.

Under its new, lighter banner, the commission would recommend curriculum frameworks that are aligned to Common Core standards. The State Board would have until May 30, 2013 to adopt the frameworks in math, and until the following May for English language arts. Those frameworks would have to include strategies for teaching disabled students.

AB 124, by Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes (D-Sylmar), ensures that the standards extend to English learners. His bill requires the State Superintendent to convene a group of experts to revise the curriculum, materials, and assessments for Common Core so they’re appropriate for English learners.

Common testing at Community Colleges

One of the biggest disgraces in California’s goal to ensure all high school graduates are college ready is the number of students required to enroll in remedial classes in community college.  About 70 percent of incoming community college students aren’t prepared for college-level English.  Math is even worse; 85 percent place into remedial classes.

Numerous studies have shown that the more time a student has to spend in a remedial course, the less likely that student is to graduate.

But those numbers vary across the state’s 112 community colleges, for the most part because there are nearly as many placement exams as there are campuses.  One count, by The National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education, found more than 94 different exams, although researchers identified three placements tests that were used more than most.

It’s a frustrating situation for students who may qualify for college math in one school, then transfer and find themselves in remedial classes.

That assortment of assessments will shrink under AB 743.  The bill, introduced by Assemblyman Marty Block (D-Lemon Grove), who chairs the Higher Education committee, establishes a uniform placement exam.

The Community College Chancellor’s Office would select the test, which would be an off-the-shelf exam.  But the new test wouldn’t be mandatory.  Colleges could continue to use their own placement exams, said Paige Marlatt Dorr, a spokeswoman for the Chancellor’s office.

“This bill will be an important step forward in getting all of the colleges to use the same test,” said Marlatt Dorr, and they’ll have a financial incentive to do so.   She said the Chancellor’s office will get a volume discount with an unlimited use license.

But, even if schools opt in for the common assessment, the bill doesn’t establish a uniform passing score, so students would still face individual campus disparities.

A college boost for foster youth

Even the dismal college success rate for students in remedial education is better than the odds for foster youth.  Of the 75,000 foster youth in California, 70 percent say they want to attend college.  But only 20 percent enroll and barely 3 percent graduate.  Somewhere between 600 and 800 former foster youth attend UC, 1,200 are at CSU, and 6,500 are enrolled in community colleges.

Those numbers could drop as budget cut force the state’s public colleges and universities to reduce course sections making it more difficult for students to get into the classes they need to graduate.

While there’s no single reason for these disheartening statistics, AB 194 by Assemblyman Jim Beall of San Jose, hopes to remove at least one obstacle.  It would require California State University and community colleges to give current and former foster youth priority enrollment. The University of California, which sets its own policies, indicated its support in a letter to Beall.

If the Governor signs AB 194, it would sunset in 2017.

Fixing a flaw in the Open Enrollment Act

San Pedro Elementary School in Marin County boosted its Academic Performance Index (API) by 60 points between 2009 and 2010, but the school was labeled low-performing.

“Something is wrong with our open enrollment system when high performing schools get labeled as low performers and grouped together with schools that truly need to improve academic performance,” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman in a press release after the legislature sent his bill, AB 47, to Gov. Brown.

The measure would clear up some unintended consequences of the Open Enrollment Act, the 2010 law that California had to approve to be in the running for a Race to the Top grant. Not only didn’t the state get the money, but, Huffman says, the Act set up some high achieving schools to be labeled as low performing, a designation that lets parents move their children to higher-performing schools in any other district in the state.

AB 47 would change the method for identifying schools as low-achieving to exclude any school with an API of 700 or higher, or any school that’s increased its API score by 50 points of more from one year to the next.

Huffman’s bill also exempts County Office of Education schools for special education students, but adds charter schools to the mix.

Sherry Skelly Griffith, a legislative advocate for the Association of California School Administrators, says the Open Enrollment Act caused confusion and damaged morale at schools that were showing strong gains.  “Our Association believes that low performing schools should be held accountable,” said Griffith in a written statement, “and that can’t be accomplished if the wrong schools are labeled failing.”

How the governor tried to eliminate mental health services for schoolchildren

On Oct. 8 , the same day that the Legislature passed the state budget, Gov. Schwarzenneger unceremoniously line-item vetoed funding for AB 3632 services, stating that  his “policy is to suspend mandates not related to elections, law enforcement, or property taxes in order to maintain a prudent reserve.”  With that metaphorical pen stroke, the governor placed at even greater risk thousands of already vulnerable children and youth — those who need educationally-related mental health services, including day therapy, day treatment, and even residential care.

President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg called the cuts to school-based mental health services “misguided, cruel, unnecessary and preventable.” The director of Special Education for the California Department of Education decried the “chaos” that resulted as county mental health agencies, which provide AB 3632 (a.k.a. Chapter 26.5) mental health services, began to inform school districts that those services would no longer be forthcoming.

What’s interesting about this story is just how uninteresting the public and the media find a $132.9 million cut to an educational program so necessary to a relatively small group of children. What’s equally interesting is just how vital and diverse are the services, like AB 3632 services, that schools and other public agencies provide to our children. It’s not just English Language Arts, standardized tests, and API scores.

Federal special education law requires that states provide children with mental illness the services and support they need to benefit from their education. About 25 years ago, California — breaking from nearly all other states — adopted AB 3632 to shift the provision of those services from school districts to mental health professionals in county mental health agencies. The promise of the arrangement was that school districts would be relieved of providing mental health counseling services, classrooms that provide mental health therapy and behavioral intervention, and residential treatment. Instead, the folks whose business is mental health — licensed mental health professionals — would better meet the counseling and therapeutic needs of students. The shift was also deemed a mandate on county mental health agencies that the state was obliged to reimburse. While this inter-agency sharing of responsibility has not been without its flaws (go here for a detailed description of AB 3632 and some challenges it has encountered), it has been largely successful and indeed essential for the children it serves.

The fallout from the governor’s veto was that county mental health agencies began to warn school districts that they would stop taking referrals, wind down services that they were providing, and essentially punt the obligation to provide mental health services back to the school districts. Advocates for children with disabilities immediately began receiving panicked phone calls from parents whose children were at risk of losing services, including more than one parent whose child’s individualized educational plan team had already agreed that residential services were necessary because the child posed a suicide risk.

Despite flying under the media’s radar screen, the response to the veto from mental health advocates and disability rights organizations was swift. A lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court under federal special education laws to ensure that no child was denied services. Another from the California School Boards Association, challenging the legality of using the line-item veto to effectively suspend the mental health services program, followed on its heels. Fortunately, outgoing Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell recognized the chaos caused by the governor’s action and stepped in to pull the children out of harm’s way by releasing state Department of Education funds to cover temporary AB 3632 costs. While this move plugs the dike momentarily, the risk remains.

Now, readers of this blog are among the most savvy and sophisticated educational policy folks in the state. But before you read this, had you heard about this crisis caused by the governor’s pen? Maybe. Maybe not. But it certainly wasn’t big news. Yet it exemplifies the essential services that our schools and public agencies provide to our diverse population of kids. And, unfortunately, it exemplifies just how easy it is to eliminate those services because they amount to no more than a rounding error in our behemoth state budget.

As the Legislature goes about the task of trimming even more from this year’s education budget, children who get counseling, therapy, and life-saving residential treatment hope that this time the Legislature won’t round down.

Bill Koski is the Eric & Nancy Wright Professor of Clinical Education, Professor of Law, and Professor of Education (by courtesy) at Stanford University.  He is the founder and director of the law school’s Youth and Education Law Project and has represented hundreds of disadvantaged children and their families in educational equity, disability rights, and school reform matters.  Reflecting his multidisciplinary background as a lawyer and social scientist, Professor Koski’s scholarly work focuses on the related issues of educational accountability, equity, and adequacy; the politics of educational policy reform; and judicial decision-making in educational policy reform litigation.

Anniversary approaches for a revolutionary, imperfect disabilities law

On November 29, teachers, parents, and students will quietly mark a huge milestone: the 35th anniversary of the passage of Public Law 94-142. Called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act when it was passed in 1975, it is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA).

It’s hard to overestimate the impact that IDEA has had on schools and students. In 1970, U.S. schools educated only one in five children with disabilities, and many states had laws excluding students who were deaf or blind, emotionally disturbed, or cognitively impaired from public schools. Today, any state that accepts federal funding for students with disabilities (all 50 do) is required by law to provide a free, appropriate public education to all students, regardless of ability.

To me, this promise is personal: My cousin, a 46-year-old woman with Down Syndrome, was educated in county programs where she was isolated from her typical peers and expected to reach a low level of independence as an adult. Today, people with similar abilities and strengths are entering postsecondary education programs because of the higher expectations they have experienced in their schools. It’s impossible to know what my cousin might be doing today if she had been educated differently; she currently lives in a group home and works for a nonprofit that sells crafts worked by people with disabilities. Most of her living expenses are covered by state and federal programs.

As a parent of a child with a disability myself and a longtime advocate for the full inclusion of people with disabilities, I have on countless occasions observed that people with profound needs also have profound abilities when they are encouraged by their schools, their parents, and their communities to reach their full potential. A few years ago, a friend observed to me that “people with Down Syndrome are so much more high-functioning these days!” In fact, I don’t think that the nature of the disability has changed, but our attitudes toward it certainly have, thanks in large part to IDEA.

Still, even as the law has helped students achieve greater levels of independence, it has also been a massive broken promise. To help schools achieve the promises made with IDEA,  the federal government is supposed to provide additional funding to schools to help meet the cost of educating students with extra needs; that funding is set at 40 percent of average per-pupil spending nationally. However, the federal government has never met this funding obligation. For example, in fiscal 2008, the federal government’s IDEA obligation was $19.2 billion, but only $10.7 billion was actually allocated by Congress.

The failure to fund IDEA’s obligations is just one of the unintended consequences since it was passed. In his original message accompanying the signing of the 1975 version of the law, President Gerald Ford said:

Unfortunately, this bill promises more than the Federal Government can deliver, and its good intentions could be thwarted by the many unwise provisions it contains. Everyone can agree with the objective stated in the title of this bill – educating all handicapped children in our Nation. The key question is whether the bill will really accomplish that objective.

Ford was right. IDEA has spawned an entirely new branch of the law with complex regulations, exacting timeliness, and standards that mean different things to different people (parents define the term “appropriate public education” very differently than district administrators). Lawsuits abound because parents believe school districts are doing less than they should, while school districts believe parents are unreasonable in their demands for services. Both sides spend more than they should to win these legal battles, instead of spending that money and energy supporting children with profound needs and educating them for a world with ever-higher educational expectations.

In recent years, major school districts across the country, including Baltimore City Public Schools – which finally resolved a long-running lawsuit this year – as well as San Diego Unified School District and Seattle Public Schools, have acknowledged their failures to educate students with disabilities to an appropriate level of proficiency and have resolved to do better. In such a litigious environment, a public acknowledgment of failure is a bold step for a district to take, but it is the best way to rebuild trust with families and communities that believe they have been continually lied to and let down. In San Francisco, we’ve followed the lead of these other districts. Last month we released the highly critical findings of an independent audit of our special education programs, including the sobering observations that too few of our special education students are included in general education classes and that our special education caseload is disproportionately African American and Latino.

There is a huge amount of work to be done, and little money to fund that work. Ironically, the changeover of the House to Republican control might actually provide some resources to help districts like ours that are looking to restructure and improve their programs. Last year, the presumed chairman of the House Education & Labor Committee, Minnesota Congressman John Kline, penned an op-ed in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune voicing strong support for full funding of IDEA. On the Senate side, Sen.-elect Mark Kirk of Illinois was a supporter of full funding while in the House, and is rumored to be interested in a seat on the Senate’s education committee.

Regardless of the future funding picture, my goal for IDEA’s 40th birthday is for students with disabilities in San Francisco Unified to be achieving at a much higher level; for our African American and Latino students to receive support much earlier so that their educational outlook improves; and for the segregation of students in self-contained special education classrooms to be ended. I would like to see us spend much less money on lawsuits and private school tuitions for students we have failed, and instead see us reinvest those resources into building a quality program.

Thirty-five years ago, the federal government drew a line in the sand, telling states that they could no longer shut some students out of their schools. The execution of that long-overdue ultimatum has been imperfect and frustrating, but there is no other choice but to keep improving conditions and outcomes for our students with disabilities. On this anniversary, I choose to focus on achieving IDEA’s vision of what can be rather than bemoaning the half-kept promises that have resulted so far.

Rachel Norton has served on the San Francisco Board of Education since January 2009. Prior to her election to the school board, she served as site council chair at her daughters’ elementary school, as a member of the SFUSD 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.