California’s budget woes hit neediest students the hardest

Californians have been hit with so much bad budget news these past three years it’s easy to assume that we’re all suffering more or less equally. Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to our schools. Essentially every fiscal maneuver our policymakers have undertaken to respond to the budget crisis has delivered more pain to the neediest schools and students.

Even before the traumatic $18 billion in accumulated cuts to school funding since 2009, the underlying school finance system had devolved to one that disproportionately denies low-income students and English learners an equal shot at learning the state’s academic content standards. Two constitutional challenges currently winding through the courts are confronting the fact that our districts are underfunded overall and that high-poverty districts and schools generally spend below or only at the state average even while they are trying to serve a needier student population.

Yet here come the budget cuts, heaping more shame and inequity on an already shameful and inequitable school funding system. If the state is not going to sufficiently fund our schools, it’s at least imperative to stop adopting policies that impose cuts in ways that harm the poorest and most educationally disadvantaged students.

Flexing funds away from the neediest

Let’s start with the “categorical flexibility” the Legislature granted to districts in February 2009, which allows schools to spend funds allocated to 40 categorical programs for any educational purpose. The introduction of flex categorical funding has paved the way for school districts to shift funds away from categorical programs that are often designed to assist disadvantaged students. A recent study conducted by RAND and PACE Research Network confirms that districts have been using flex categorical funds to help balance their general budget – rather than using them for the purposes for which they were originally intended.

According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) 2011 report, the shifting of these funds has led to reductions in funding for several programs intended to assist disadvantaged students. For instance, 75 percent  of school districts polled by the LAO have shifted funds away from “Supplemental Instruction,” 72 percent have shifted funds from the “Pupil Retention Block Grant,” 68 percent have shifted funds from the “Targeted Instructional Improvement Grant,” and 63 percent have shifted funds from “supplemental instruction for students failing the high school exit exam.” The LAO also reports that some districts have completely eliminated some of these important programs. Many school administrators now express concern, as found in the RAND report, that categorical flexibility and the shift in funds away from the support of disadvantaged students is increasing inequitable educational opportunities in California.

Many organizations, including my own, have complained that rules adopted by the California Department of Education associated with flex categorical funding make it very difficult to track and analyze state K-12 funding. Following the shift to flex categorical funding, the Public Policy Institute of California observes that revenue codes for flexed programs were terminated, and the RAND report further found that some districts no longer track spending for individual programs. Therefore, a full understanding of the disproportionate effects of flex categorical funding may not be possible.

Cuts derail flexibility’s true purpose

Don’t get me wrong. I’m generally in favor of expanding district flexibility and reducing the too numerous categorical programs that have sprouted like wildflowers in California’s school finance system post-Serrano. But flexibility is supposed to help better serve student needs, not to facilitate underserving the neediest students.

The fact is the state’s education funding cuts, when combined with the new flexibility, have led to high-poverty schools reducing and eliminating critical programs and services at far greater rates than low-poverty schools. A 2010 report from UCLA/IDEA shows that high-poverty schools are nearly three times more likely than low-poverty schools (49 percent vs. 17 percent) to eliminate summer school outright and four times more likely (65.6 percent vs. 15 percent) to experience teacher layoffs.

Another report by UCLA/IDEA in 2011 shows that 25 percent of the basic-aid or high-local-revenue districts studied cut instructional days compared with more than 50 percent of other districts, and that 25 percent of the basic-aid or high-local-revenue districts reduced counseling staff compared to more than 50 percent of other districts. Furthermore, IDEA reports that in 2008-2009 middle schools serving more than 90 percent Latino, African American, and American Indian students were almost 10 times more likely than schools with a majority of white and Asian students to experience severe shortages of qualified teachers.

The Association of California School Administrators found that, since 2008-2009, overall categorical program funding has been cut 20 percent compared to a general aid or “revenue limit” cut of just 10 percent. Combine that with the Public Policy Institute of California’s (PPIC) observation that high-poverty school districts generally receive more categorical funding than low-poverty districts, and it’s clear why these budget cuts are having a far greater effect on disadvantaged California students.

The picture that emerges is one of districts struggling to retain the core program – a teacher in front of a classroom – while being forced and permitted to cut all the supplemental programs around the core that are designed to give low-income students, English learners, and students with disabilities meaningful access to the general education curriculum.

Deferrals heighten pain disproportionately

The last three budgets have included payment deferrals as a way, on paper at least, to avoid programmatic cuts. For example, the 2011 LAO report shows that in 2010-2011, 17 percent of the Proposition 98 school funding guarantee was “funded” by amounts borrowed from the next fiscal year. In other words, the state promises the money now but sends it to districts next year. The report goes on to show that, in response to recent deferrals, 74 percent of districts have drawn down district reserves, 45 percent have borrowed from special funds, and 28 percent have relied on external borrowing. Furthermore, more than 20 percent of districts report they have, in fact, made programmatic cuts rather than borrow.

Therefore, school districts with the highest reserve funds and best access to special funds and external funding are in a far better position to avoid programmatic cuts caused by deferrals. Moreover, as shown by the 2010 LAO report, most of the funds deferred in the 2009-10 and 2010-2011 budgets were designated as revenue limit funds rather than categorical funds. (As a result, high revenue basic-aid districts – which no longer receive any revenue limit funds from the state but receive most of their support from local property taxes – have had far less of their funding deferred than the typically lower-revenue non-basic-aid districts.)

Private donations widening opportunity gap

Finally, things have become so dire that we are seeing a breathtaking increase in the private financing of public education in California. The RAND report observes that many districts are using donations from parents and foundations to fill the critical gaps created by the loss of funds. The use of external funding sources, however, greatly favors low-poverty schools. According to the 2010 UCLA/IDEA report, 80 percent of schools receive donations from parent organizations, but low-poverty schools on average receive eight times more ($167,797) than high-poverty schools ($21,319). The UCLA/IDEA 2011 report also shows that schools with few students from low-income families received on average $100,000 in donations compared to $5,000 for schools with a high proportion of poor students.

Of course parents should be able to support their local schools to add enrichment opportunities. What’s disturbing about the California scenario is that parents are being asked to fill the shoes of the state by funding core educational programs like music and art and, increasingly, salaries for critical teaching and student support positions. As a result, the wealth gap in our state is translating more than ever into a tangible opportunity gap.

End the unfairness

California is at the bottom nationally in terms of its level of per-pupil spending and in the percentage of personal income spent on public education. Its school finance system is built on 40-year-old anachronistic formulas that bear no relation to delivering the resources necessary for providing a standards-based education.

As the Stanford Getting Down to Facts studies demonstrated, the system now sends widely divergent amounts of funding per pupil to districts of similar size and demographics without any relationship to student needs. Finally, the system fails to sufficiently take into account the extra needs of low-income students and English learners, particularly when they are concentrated at the same schools.

Rather than addressing any of these inadequacies or inequities, the state has chosen to sink our children’s educational prospects lower and lower with unprecedented funding cuts. And rather than protecting the neediest students in these tough times, our policymakers, with their categorical flexibility, deferrals, and increased reliance on local fundraising, have served up the most severe cuts to those who can least afford it.

It’s time for our policymakers to reverse these funding cuts and address the underlying inadequacies and inequities within our school finance system. And to the extent that any such ultimate solutions remain a distant hope, Sacramento needs to stop this unfairness and take a much more nuanced approach to imposing its fiscal pain on our children. The next dollars that have to be cut should be cut as far away as possible from the neediest students.

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 by strengthening community voices in public policy. He is a leading voice on educational equity issues and has been recognized by California Lawyer Magazine as a California Attorney of the Year, by The Recorder as an Attorney of the Year, and as a Leading Plaintiff Lawyer in America by Lawdragon Magazine.

Goodwin Liu, education justice

If the two lawsuits seeking to overturn the state’s K-12 funding systems ever make it to the State Supreme Court, they will likely find a receptive ear and an informed voice in its newest member, Goodwin Liu – assuming, of course, he gets to serve on the court.

In Liu, the associate dean and professor of constitutional law at UC Berkeley School of Law, Gov. Jerry Brown nominated a national expert on education law and an advocate for equitable school funding. He has contributed a rare combination of a broad legal analysis and detailed proposals for school finance reform.

“He’s among the top scholars in the  education arena. He knows his stuff,” said William Koski, a Stanford Law School professor and a chief plaintiffs’ attorney for Robles-Wong v State of California, one of  two cases claiming that the state has violated the state constitution by failing to adequately fund K-12 schools.

Goodwin Liu
Goodwin Liu

Justices agree to put aside their prior positions and points of view as soon as they put on their robes and weigh cases by facts before them. Many judges have astounded those who thought they could go to the bank knowing how they would rule.

So it’s speculative to presume what Liu’s positions would be on Robles-Wong and Campaign for Quality Education, the other case. Liu hasn’t written or spoken publicly about them – or about any legal matter for 18 months, since President Obama nominated him to a vacancy on the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. After Republicans stalled his nomination, Liu withdrew his name, and Gov. Brown seized the chance to nominate him last month to the state’s highest court.

Liu’s weighted student formula

But Liu has written extensively on finance equity and adequacy, and his writings are a window into his thinking, if not his sympathies. The weighted student formula that Liu devised three years ago in a 16-page paper, “Getting Beyond the Facts: Reforming California’s School Finance,” with Stanford professor Michael Kirst, who’s now the president of the State Board of Education, and former state Secretary of Education Alan Bersin offers a specific proposal for revising California’s education funding. It would allot more money per student for low-income students and English learners, while also factoring in regional costs of living. The underlying assumption for reform, the authors wrote, is that California’s school finance system has become “so unwieldy and irrational that basic issues of fairness and institutional design can no longer be addressed from within.”

The paper, written for the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity and Diversity at UC Berkeley, doesn’t call for any specific amount, leaving that to the Legislature; the State Supreme Court presumably would do the same, letting the Legislature create the remedy if the court did rule the current system unconstitutional. In their paper, Liu, Kirst, and Bersin assumed that school districts would be guaranteed what they’re getting now, and the Legislature would approve new money, along with combining some special funds, to make the weighted formula work.

Under the formula, poor children who went to schools with a majority of other poor children would get bonus money. That’s because, Liu and the others wrote, “Students in high-poverty schools face a double disadvantage arising not only from their own poverty but also from the poverty of their peers.” Concentrations of poverty compound problems of “lower aspirations, more negative attitudes toward achievement, and higher levels of disruption and mobility.”

Liu employed the same principle in analyzing the federal government’s distribution of Title I, the primary assistance for poor children in a 2007 study written for the School Finance Redesign Project at the University of Washington. His conclusion: “Title I reinforces vast spending inequalities between states to the detriment of poor children in high-poverty jurisdictions.” A primary reason, he found, was that Congress based Title I aid on a state’s per-pupil spending, so that states with high poverty and low per-pupil spending – the Deep South and California – got less than states like Massachusetts and Connecticut, big spenders with less poverty.

Congress’ 14th Amendment obligation

The closest parallel in Liu’s writing to the Robles-Wong case is a 2006 article in the Yale Law Journal in which he argued that 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution “authorizes and obligates” Congress to provide an adequate level of school funding to advance “a national goal of equal educational opportunity.”

“Congress should reform and expand the federal role in school finance to narrow interstate disparities and to establish a national floor of educational opportunity below which no state or district may fall,” he wrote.

That view certainly clashes with the current budget-cutting mood in Congress, and it runs counter to a four-decade-old court decision governing the issue. In 1973, in San Antonio School District v Rodriguez, the Supreme Court ruled that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment did not establish education as a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution. That’s why school finance lawsuits since then have been filed in state courts, citing violations of state constitutions.

But Liu doesn’t focus on the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, which prevents states from interfering with individuals’ constitutional rights. He points to the citizenship clause, which as part of the post-Civil War amendment to grant rights to African Americans, broadly defined citizenship, and to the section in the Amendment that grants Congress powers to enforce the equal protection and citizenship clauses.

Liu’s premise is that benefiting  from rights and responsibilities of citizenship – serving on juries, voting, exercising free speech, pursuing economic opportunities – requires education, and the federal government must ensure it is adequately provided. That’s not a new argument. For two decades, post-Reconstruction congresses wrestled with the issue, Liu said. Three times during the 1880s, the Senate passed bills allocating substantial funding to the states, based on their illiteracy rates, only to have them die in the House.

But what was important then is true today, Liu said, because of a “sobering and largely neglected fact: the most significant component of educational inequality across the nation is not within states but between states.”

Liu doesn’t argue that the Supreme Court should rule that the 14th Amendment guarantees an adequate education; instead, he argues that Congress should recognize that responsibility, define adequate education, and fund it – even though it’s not an explicit obligation.

Unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, California’s Supreme Court has affirmed that the state Constitution, in Article IX, does establish public education as a fundamental right and the creation of a statewide system of public schools as a legislative priority. The plaintiffs in Robles-Wong and Campaign for Quality Education essentially are making a similar argument to Liu, that the Legislature established tough academic standards but has failed to fund what is needed to enable them to become “informed and productive members of society.”

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Steven Brick rejected the argument that the state Constitution compels the Legislature to fund an adequate education, however defined. But based on his article in the Yale Law Review, I’ll bet Liu  would disagree.

While not mentioning California by name, Liu wrote, “For disadvantaged children in substandard schools, the recent success of educational adequacy lawsuits in state courts is a welcome development.”

The three-member state Commission on Judicial Appointments, headed by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, will take up his nomination later this month.


For another view of Liu’s nomination, see columnist and occasional TOP-Ed contributor Peter Schrag’s column in the California Progress Report. “Despite the complaints of conservatives, Gov. Jerry Brown couldn’t have chosen a better state Supreme Court nominee than Goodwin Liu,” he wrote.

Another setback in funding lawsuits

An Alameda County Superior Court judge has dealt another blow to plaintiffs in two lawsuits claiming that the state’s “insufficient, irrational and unstable” school funding system violated children’s fundamental right to an education. Judge Steven Brick’s rulings this week (Go here and here) again limit attorneys’ constitutional claims and make an appeal of his rulings more likely.

In January, Brick denied the core argument of plaintiffs in the suits, Robles-Wong v. State of California and Campaign for Quality Education v. State of California. They argued that the state constitution establishing education as a fundamental right requires the Legislature in turn to adequately fund it so that all students meet the high academic standards that the state has set. Brick ruled that the Legislature can fund education at the level it chooses, “however devastating the effects of such underfunding have been on the quality of public school education.”

But Brick left open the possibility that attorneys could reframe the lawsuit, based on a claim that their particular plaintiffs – students in nine districts in Robles-Wong and primarily low-income and minority students in five districts in Campaign for Quality Education – were denied an equal opportunity for an education that is afforded to other children in California.

Doing so would have turned a funding adequacy claim into a narrower equal opportunity claim along the lines of the successful Serrano lawsuits in the 1970s, which found that students in property-poor districts were denied equal education resources. But plaintiffs in the new lawsuits wanted to put the state’s funding system itself on trial. They wanted to make a broader interpretation of equal protection, that it’s “sufficient to plead a disparity between the resources needed to have a fair chance” to meet state academic standards, on the one hand, “and the resources they receive, on the other,” as Brick paraphrased the argument of the lawyers in Robles-Wong. But Brick’s position – a  conventional interpretation – is that to assert an equal opportunity violation, plaintiffs must claim that some students are being  denied what others are getting. Taking that tack would have put the plaintiffs in the untenable position of arguing what they don’t believe, that there are sufficient resources to provide most students a fair opportunity not only to pass state standardized tests, but also to be adequately prepared for the demands of higher education and the job market .

No ifs and no Butts

Besides the Serrano cases, the other important precedent-setting case is Butt v. State of California. In that 1992 case, the State Supreme Court ordered the state to step in on behalf of children in Richmond Unified who faced losing six weeks of school because their district ran out of money. Brick said that the plaintiffs in the latest cases misinterpreted the Butt decision to imply that the Legislature has a constitutional obligation to fully fund a law or regulation. What mattered in Butt was that a particular group of students – in this case in a particular school district – received disparate treatment.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs could appeal Brick’s rulings, or they could choose to amend their complaints along a traditional equal protection claim, that low income and minority children receive fewer resources than other students and far less than required to succeed, given their greater needs. This would involve a political calculation; if they won – and they certainly would make a compelling case – the Legislature could choose to redistribute money, not increase funding for all students.

Stating he was disappointed but not surprised by Brick’s ruling, William Koski, a Stanford law professor who is a lead attorney for Robles-Wong, said that his clients would meet over the next month to decide which approach to take. The suit was filed by a coalition of powerful education groups – the California School Boards Association, the state PTA, and the Association of California School Administrators, along with attorneys for disadvantaged children. The California Teachers Association was an intervenor.

Plaintiffs in the second suit are Campaign for Quality Education, a coalition of grassroots, civil rights and research organizations; Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment; PICO, representing 400 religious congregations statewide; Californians for Justice, which works with students in Oakland, Long Beach, Fresno and San Jose; and and San Francisco Organizing Project, a church- and school-based organization in four neighborhoods of San Francisco.

First pass at finance reform

Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Julia Brownley has fleshed out the bill that she hopes will be the vehicle to overhaul the state’s school finance system, beginning in 2015-16. AB 18 will get its first public hearing in her committee on Wednesday.

The bill’s goals are to simplify convoluted funding formulas and to target more money to poor students and English learners. The bill clearly would do the former, by consolidating base-level funding and funding for dozens of specified programs known as categoricals into four basic areas. The bill would not explicitly increase spending for needy kids, but it would make a “Targeted Equity Pupil Grant” one of the four new categories with the intent that lawmakers give it proportionally more money than districts receive now through existing categorical programs. Click AB 18 Fact Sheet 4-27-revised, which Brownley expects will go through multiple revisions.

There is near universal agreement that school funding should be comprehensible, not just for legislators, but for parents and teachers, too. There’s also a consensus that giving districts more control over spending decisions is a good idea. But that won’t make the challenge of creating a new system any easier; defenders of categorical programs – including two of  the more popular ones, class size reduction and adult education – will argue that  districts shouldn’t have the flexibility to spend those dollars on other priorities. And Brownley proposes to hold districts harmless, guaranteeing that their funding won’t be cut initially; that also means that existing quirks in base revenue allocations and categorical funding will persist. The intent of the bill is to equalize funding to eliminate inequities within the four categories, but the bill at this point is silent on how.

Among those supportive of the bill is Jon Sonstelie, an economics professor at UC Santa Barbara, who has written extensively on reforming California’s school funding. “Overall, I think the bill is a huge step in the right direction,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Obviously, this is a work in progress, but I do like what I see so far.” He did express disappointment that the bill does not include a factor for cost differences among regions, out of recognition that it costs teachers more to live in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

The four  categories in AB 18 would be:

  • The current revenue limit (base funding per student) plus about two dozen categoricals, such as instructional materials and adult ed; this would be the largest, about two-thirds of spending. Districts would control how this money would be spent.
  • Quality Instruction Grant:  This money, by combining a dozen categorical programs, could be used to reduce class sizes or for teacher and administrator training, mentoring, teacher recruitment programs, evaluation programs such as Peer Assistance and Review, or help for beginning teachers. There would be far more flexibility than now.
  • Targeted Pupil Equity Grant: This would include Economic Impact Aid, the largest source of money for poor children, plus other categorical spending aimed at low-income students and English learners. It would make up between 15 and 20 percent of funds initially, according to staff members.
  • Spending areas not covered by the other three categories, including career and technical education, special education, and county offices of education.

Others advocating finance reform, including State Board President Michael Kirst, have proposed a weighted student formula, giving poor students and English learners anywhere from 20 to 30 percent more per student. A weighted system is implied in the Target Pupil Equity Grant, but AB 18 is insisting that districts also spend money on professional development. Brownley’s bill takes more of a block grant approach to spending.

Brownley would also require districts to start to track spending by school – a significant step toward making spending more transparent. This feature would also reveal inequities in spending between low-income schools, where many novice teachers end up, and wealthier schools with a more veteran teaching force.

Paths to school finance reform

The state’s system of funding K-12 schools is inadequate, inequitable and opaque.

Only taxes, time (the next two decades of passively watching the economy improve) or a settlement of the Robles-Wong v California lawsuit can fully address the issue of insufficient school funding. But the Legislature can take steps now to make school funding fair and transparent, researchers for the Public Policy Institute of California conclude in two studies released on Tuesday.

“Pursuing structural reforms today will not only meet a critical need but will also help California be better prepared tomorrow, when it can afford to invest more in its K–12 system than it does now,” PPIC research associate Margaret Weston writes in At Issue: School Finance Reform

Outdated funding formulas set in the 1970s, combined with dozens of categorical programs that the Legislature earmarked for specific purposes, have created quirky, complicated district allocations that defy explanation, let alone justification. (As one example, the study cited $1,000 per student funding differences in base revenue allotments among three elementary districts in the same Southern California zip code.)

The studies recommend combining the categorical programs – a process that the Legislature has already begun – while simplifying and equalizing per student funding, with extra money for low-income students. Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Committee on Education Excellence recommended this weighted, per student funding approach, and Gov.-elect Jerry Brown has said he favors it, too. Stanford emeritus professor Michael Kirst, Brown’s chief education adviser, co-authored a study 2½ years ago that factored in regional costs of living, as well as poverty. So the timing is good to raise the issue again now.

The PPIC studies are agnostic as to the formula. Some alternatives give high schools extra money or schools with more expensive career and technical education programs. But the more factors, the more complicated the allocation becomes and the harder to explain to the public.

The studies assume that finance reform will not leave districts with less per student funding than they already receive. The good news is that student population in coming years is projected to grow slowly in relation to taxpayer income, resulting to higher per student funding under Proposition 98. The bad news is that it will take until 2030 to substantially increase K-12 spending, short of raising additional revenue, according projections in the second study, Pathways for School Finance in California. Settling  two school finance lawsuits, brought by statewide education groups and attorneys for poor families, could accelerate additional funding.

The PPIC studies recommend five principles for a framework for allocating new revenues and creating a more efficient school finance system:

  • Provide additional revenue to districts facing different resource needs – the weighted student formula;
  • Structure incentives properly: Don’t inadvertently reward districts that fail struggling students;
  • Allocate funds transparently so that  the allocations can be  easily understood;
  • Treat similar districts equitably;
  • Balance state and local authority: Give districts more control over revenues in exchange for a higher level of accountability.

The Pathways study, an expansion of the At Issue paper, was written by Weston, Jon Sonstelie, professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Heather Rose, an assistant professor in the School of Education at the University of California, Davis.

Advice to Jerry Brown (continued)

Finish CALPADS; appoint accountability-savvy members to the state board; focus on assessments; listen more to teachers; reform the finance system.

That was yesterday’s advice (not to be confused with “so yesterday”) to Jerry Brown on this page from nine leaders in education. Today, an additional dozen voices in education, some  of them familiar to readers of this blog, offer advice to the governor-elect. At the end, summarizing their collective wisdom, I offer my own Grand Unified Theory for how Gov.-elect Brown can fix the mess we’re in.

Bill Lucia: Replicate success without state intrusion

Dozens of states and cities across the country, as well as countries across the globe with high student achievement, have leap-frogged over California’s once envied system of public education. Common to the culture of the most successful is a conscious rejection of making excuses for low achievement and a refusal to believe that poverty or a ZIP code is destiny. Charting a course of success will require the courage to admit Sacramento doesn’t have all the answers to micro-manage thousands of classrooms, coupled with a willingness to get out of the way of success.

Immediate opportunities exist to move forward:

  • Get the state’s data system back on track. Demand long-promised functionality, competent management and governance, and timely access of data.
  • Get California back in the driver’s seat on assessments. California is a non-governing member of an interstate collaboration on assessments tied to national standards; that makes no sense for the state with the largest school-age population.
  • Redefine the role of the Department of Education and set clear expectations for technical assistance. For decades, education bureaucrats were funded as program monitors; now, with the consolidation of categorical funding, they have no statutorily defined role.
  • Tackle inequitable funding down to the site level. School funding is not equal among sites within a district or among districts.
  • Begin to foster and replicate success now. Students don’t have a shelf life, and in this world economy neither does California.

Bill Lucia, former executive director of the State School Board, is CEO and president of the advocacy group EdVoice.

Margaret Gaston: Focus on equity, teacher pipeline

In his victory speech, Gov.-elect Jerry Brown spoke of the need to rebuild public education. Where to begin?  By restoring to greatness California’s teaching workforce.

Mr. Brown re-enters the governorship at a time when the expectations for teachers to increase students’ academic achievement have never been higher. Teachers are under tremendous scrutiny, and face myriad calls for increased accountability. The systems that prepare and support teachers as they take on these challenges have been badly damaged by the economic crisis.  There are fewer teachers teaching today, fewer individuals in the pipeline to become teachers than there were just five years ago, and more than one third of teachers are over 50, signaling that 100,000 of them will retire at a rate faster than the current system can replace them.

To deal with the current crisis in education we would advise Gov.-elect Brown to do three things:

  • Build a teacher development system capable of delivering an adequate number of effective teachers to classrooms where they are needed the most;
  • Strengthen the capacity of the workforce to deliver a full and balanced curriculum to every child in every school; and
  • Rebuild California’s public school system with a renewed commitment to equity, ensuring that those students who need them the most get the great teachers they deserve.

We stand ready to help.

Margaret Gaston is the President and Executive Director of the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning. The Center’s forthcoming report on the teacher workforce will include specific recommendations for strengthening education for California’s public school students.

Kenyon Davis: Include students, parents in reform

In the last year and a half, I’ve been to Sacramento at least four times when I could have been in class preparing to graduate from high school. Why? Because too often when the “experts” meet to talk about how to fix California’s failing schools, they leave out the most important expert voices: students and parents themselves. (And in a state where a majority of students are black and brown, we need to listen especially to students and parents of color.)

We are in the schools everyday and we can point out what works and what doesn’t. We can even offer up new ideas. But we can’t be dragged back-and-forth from one solution to another and we can’t be told what to do. We need to be included.

This past election, students and parents from the Campaign for Quality Education created a voter questionnaire asking the candidates for governor a range of questions on key education issues such as equitable funding, teacher quality, and the dropout rate. Gov.-elect Brown and his staff not only answered our survey, they were receptive to our needs and stressed their commitment to education and education reform. It was a good start, and we hope the conversation continues.

Kenyon Davis, a freshman at El Camino College in Compton, is a board member with Californians for Justice, a statewide grassroots organization that works for racial and educational justice in low-income, immigrant, communities of color.

Jo A.S. Loss: Fight for quality ed for every child

Be a champion for every child and for the future.

Californians are desperate for leaders who consistently take actions that help all children reach their full potential. We need a guardian of the budget who considers the full impact of decisions on our most vulnerable, a governor who fights to ensure all children have access to high-quality teachers and a complete curriculum that enables them to develop all of their skills and talents, including creativity and critical thinking.

You cannot shy away from the big challenges such as fixing our state’s broken school finance system, and seriously addressing the school finance lawsuit brought by parents, educators and the California State PTA. We need a governor who promotes a carefully considered, holistic approach to improving the education, health and safety of all children. Lately, there has been a lot of rhetoric tearing down our public schools and our dedicated educators and parents. Instead, we need consistent actions and words from the top that build everyone up to meet the challenges of the 21st century. California’s more than 9 million children deserve a governor who places as first priority their education – and consequently their future and the future of our state.

Jo A.S. Loss is president of the California State PTA.

John Danner: Reward innovation in education

Gov.-elect Brown, you’re inheriting a heap o’ challenges, including high (and rising) unemployment, nearly bankrupt state coffers, spiraling mortgage foreclosures, and schools on the verge of fiscal collapse. Unlike your father, you don’t have the funds to stabilize and rebuild California’s public education system, so perhaps it’s tempting to hunker down and focus on other issues. But while you sort out these messes, please don’t forget our children. Don’t dismantle your father’s fine legacy in education.

Instead I urge you to act boldly: Focus on and reward innovation in education. This comes naturally to you, as you’ve always been willing to embrace change. Charter schools are the bright oases of hope in an otherwise dismal landscape. For example, at Rocketship’s K-5 elementary charter schools, we’re educating high-need, low-income students with stellar results (last year, our kids performed as well as their wealthy peers in Palo Alto), despite a dearth of outstanding teachers, and dwindling public funding. How is this possible? Through innovations in individualized instruction: We augment great classroom teaching with tutors and computers so that students achieve grade-level proficiency (and a whole lot more). This innovative approach is also financially sustainable – even with California’s miserable per-capita education spending.

So, embrace charter school innovations, and celebrate the innovators in your midst. They might just make a huge difference for the future of our state (and our country).

John Danner is co-founder and CEO of Rocketship Education.

Arun Ramanathan: Look, listen outside capital

Gov.-elect Brown: “Hope” is a cheap word in politics. Politicians peddle hope along with courage and conviction like used-car salesmen peddle the “power” and “comfort” of their cars. But unlike the customer of a used-car salesman, there’s no Lemon Law that allows you to return  politicians who don’t fulfill their promises by failing to show either courage or conviction as they take your hopes away.

After an expensive and negative campaign season, on behalf of California’s children, I respectfully ask that you set a new tone by doing something your predecessors rarely did outside the election season. Get out of the Sacramento echo chamber, say bye-bye to the friendly partisan audiences. Start your term by traveling the state and listening to Californians about their hopes and dreams for the future of our state.

Make it commonplace and second nature to leave the Capitol and listen to local voices. As you travel our state, make a special effort to hear the voices of the new majority demographic in our public schools and their parents. Visit their communities and listen to their dreams of a better future. Perhaps then, when you go back to Sacramento, you will hear their voices when it is time to make the courageous choices necessary to transform our education system and eliminate the achievement and opportunity gaps that leave so many dreams unfulfilled.

That would inspire real hope for our state.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust-West, a statewide education advocacy organization.

Stephen Blum: Stop micromanaging districts

California was once the education leader of our nation.  This is no longer the case.

The next governor should understand that unintended consequences of the Serrano court decision and Proposition 13 shifted educational control from local school districts to Sacramento. The state government has been in charge of determining the funding amounts for local school districts since the late 1970s. The revenue amount needs to be predictable and ongoing. State budgets should be on time or on a two- or three-year cycle.

State government should stop trying to micromanage our 1,050 school districts and return much more local control. The state  should refrain from implementing simple solutions that sound good, stop seeking and believing there is one “silver bullet” that will “fix” education, and stop embracing the latest “fad of the week” education solution.

State government and the next governor should work with local school districts to create a multifaceted, long-term education plan that allows for the many individual needs of the diverse districts across our state. What works in Yreka may not work in San Diego.

Education reform should be less punitive and more productive. Education happens best when willing learners attend safe schools staffed by outstanding employees. Reforms should support, not blame, parents, teachers and administrators.

Good luck.  You will need it.

Stephen Blum is the president of the Ventura Unified Education Association and a member of the Ventura County Community College Board of Trustees.

Ted Lempert: Put children high on the agenda

Gov.-elect Brown must make children the priority of his administration. The budget will be his initial focus. Since California ranks among the top 20 states in revenue, Brown should aim to be at least top 20 in expenditures on education and other children’s services.

Children Now will provide the Governor-elect with the Children’s Agenda, 10 specific recommendations to, as Brown expressed in his victory speech, “keep [children] in the forefront of whatever we do.”

A top recommendation is a balanced P-12 education revenue and reform package, delivering a revamped, equitable, and adequate finance system, removing many state regulations and providing local flexibility coupled with strong accountability and transparency. Other recommendations include establishing a high-quality early learning and development system, articulated to K-12 through a kindergarten readiness assessment, expanded learning opportunities and school-based health and social services.

Immediate action is needed to ensure funding for the state’s student data systems. This is vital to the state’s ability to improve policymaking, instruction and learning and to ensure compliance with federal reporting requirements. Failure to do so jeopardizes federal funding, adds substantial risk to system development already underway, and leaves districts without the essential support they need to meet requirements.

Ted Lempert, a former Assembly member, is president of the advocacy group Children Now.

Marshall (Mike) Smith: Address structural deficit

Gov.-elect Brown must develop a budget for 2011 that addresses the substantial current and continuing structural deficits. This will require tax increases for all but the lower-income and serious cuts in the service sector, including education. It is the only way to regain the stability and predictability within the state that is necessary for long-term productive growth and reform.

To accomplish this he must convince both parties of the need to act in the common good. If he fails California is toast!

Marshall (Mike) Smith was senior counselor to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and past director of education programs at the Hewlett Foundation.

Vincent Matthews: World-class schools need money

California’s public schools need to be fully funded to ensure every student receives a quality education. California has some of the highest academic standards in the United States and we educate more students than any other state in the nation, yet we are crippled with the one of the lowest per-pupil revenue allocations.

According to data published by Education Week, California now ranks 47th in the nation in per-pupil spending. The “luxury” of librarians and art and music programs have all but crossed the bridge of no return. The lack of academic counselors and our increasing class sizes continue to jeopardize our students’ college readiness. We are continually given mandates to implement, and can predictably count on less-than-adequate reimbursement for them. The budget California provides for education does not allow us to provide a world -class educational system for our students.

Vincent C. Matthews is superintendent of San Jose Unified School District.

Doug Lasken: Coax unions to be open to change

Gov.-elect Brown, it is imperative that you renegotiate the terms of California’s agreement, as part of our Race to the Top application, to abandon our existing standards in favor of national standards. The state has not yet won a Race to the Top grant, but even if it does, the estimated $700 million coming to us would not constitute an incentive.

Thousands of teachers will have to be retrained in instructional practices, and textbooks will need to be rewritten. Even if the grant could be applied to these costs, which it can’t, it would be a drop in the bucket. Your priority should be to renegotiate the deal in tandem with ongoing Race to the Top applications.

Secondly, you should use your influence with teachers unions to convince them to speak beyond their base. Teachers, naturally, do not want to lose tenure as part of arbitrary or punitive reforms, but the consistently negative pronouncements from union leadership promote only a circling of the wagons on both sides. As governor, you should encourage the unions to address the concerns about incompetent teachers in an open and constructive way. Suggest to the unions that they say,”Yes, tenure has been abused, and we want to reform it while keeping its legitimate uses.”

Doug Lasken is a retired Los Angeles Unified teacher, consultant and freelance writer.

As for me: Settle Robles-Wong v. California now

Few governors get an opportunity to make a historic difference in the education of generations of children.

Arnold Schwarzenegger  had a chance, perhaps, if he had run with recommendations of his respected Committee on Education Excellence, calling for more money for public schools coupled with governance and finance reform. Instead, he ignored the committee, leaving all children, especially low-income children, more vulnerable to bad decisions and tragic consequences when the Legislature cut education spending three years straight.

Schwarzenegger’s inaction led this year to two school financing suits. Robles-Wong et al. v. California was filed by major players in state education: PTA, the school boards and administrators associations, and attorneys representing minority students. Campaign for Quality Education v. California was filed by community and minority parent groups represented by Public Advocates. These lawsuits offer a new opportunity for Jerry Brown.

Very simply, Governor: Don’t fight the two suits; settle them. Strike a deal with legislators as well as litigants that brings more dollars to one of the nation’s truly underfunded school systems, coupled with changes to ensure that extra money will be used wisely and weighted to students who need it most.

Funding is needed to restore what has been lost – counselors, librarians, arts classes, after-school programs, smaller classes – as well as to expand fundamental programs like preschool. But money is also leverage for change – in how information is used, how teachers are compensated and equitably assigned, how student achievement is measured and rewarded.

Brown is the right person, at the right time, to use that leverage for a deal that would be fair, smart and salable to voters. – John Fensterwald

Can we sue our way out of this mess?

Even casual readers of this blog are familiar with the disheartening numbers. Adjusting for regional wage differences, California spends $2,856 per student less than the national average, ranking us 47th among states, and some $6,000 less than New York. This translates into real resource differences, as California ranks 49th in teacher-student ratios, 49th in guidance counselors, and 50th in librarians. And although we could quibble about causality, it can’t be a coincidence that children in our educational-resource-deprived fourth grades rank 47th in the nation in reading on the NAEP, while eighth graders come in 46th in math.  Not only is California’s school finance system insufficient to meet the needs of our children, it is irrational and completely disconnected from the state’s standards-and-accountability system.

To address this crisis in school funding, two lawsuits have been filed against the state and governor: Robles-Wong v. California and Campaign for Quality Education v. California. (Grain-of-salt alert: I am co-counsel for the 62 plaintiffs/children in the Robles-Wong litigation.) The lawsuits request that the courtstate’s school funding system and order the Legislature and governor to live up to their constitutional duties and come up with a new funding system that will ensure children their fundamental right to an education. Given that California continues to muddle through this Great Recession, that Sacramento can barely pass an annual budget, and that the school funding problem has been well known for years, some have questioned whether an Alameda Superior Court judge will have any better luck in fixing the broken system. The L.A. Times raised an editorial eyebrow here.

Rick Hanushek, Hoover Institution Fellow and widely respected expert in the economics of education, devoted much of his recent book, Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses, to arguing that courts have no business meddling in matters educational. And, most recently, the state has filed a motion to dismiss the Robles-Wong lawsuit on the grounds that judicial review of the state’s educational funding system would violate separation-of-powers principles. It’s a fair question to raise and, although I don’t plan on litigating this case on the web, let me lay out the case that California courts can and must play an effective role in educational finance reform.

The constitutional right to an education and the judiciary’s duty to enforce that right

Although the U.S. Constitution says nothing about education, all state constitutions (save Mississippi) contain a provision requiring the state to establish an educational system. At least 25 state high courts that have considered the question have found that these constitutional Education Articles establish a right to an education that is judicially enforceable, while only seven have declined to rule based on separation-of-powers concerns.  California’s constitution provides that “[a] general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, the Legislature shall encourage by all suitable means the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral and agricultural improvement” and that “[t]he Legislature shall provide for a system of common schools by which a free school shall be kept up and supported . . . .”  Although some might argue that this is mere hortatory language best left to legislative discretion, and although this language has not yet been used to strike down California’s finance system, the California Supreme Court has held that this language provides children with a “fundamental” right to an education and has already declared the state’s school funding scheme unconstitutional in the Serrano litigation almost 40 years ago. California courts have ample constitutional text and case law precedent to declare the state’s funding system unconstitutional. But some will argue that courts should still not intervene because they lack the expertise and have proven ineffective as reformers in the past. Let me address those objections.

The failure of educational politics and policy-making in California

Since at least the 2000 filing of the Williams v. California litigation that demonstrated that many schools lacked even the basic necessities, through the 2007 Governor’s Committee on Educational Excellence” report which concluded that “California’s K through 12 education system is fundamentally flawed,” the Legislature and governor have been on notice that California schoolchildren are being denied the educational opportunity they deserve.  Yet the state has resolutely failed to act.  This shouldn’t be surprising, and it is likely not malevolent; rather, it is the predictable outcome of our political institutions.

Witness our current stalemate over the state budget. Due to the need for a two-thirds supermajority to pass a state budget, minority interests can block meaningful finance reform. Moreover, because our legislators are term-limited, many lack long-term staying power and are unable to develop the expertise to marshal a complex finance reform package. This leaves our always-campaigning legislators gun shy of proposing additional education spending (with the alleged specter of additional taxes not far behind). All of this means that even well-intentioned legislators are paralyzed by ballot-box politics.

Although our state court judges stand for occasional retention elections, they are nonetheless relatively sheltered from political pressures and can therefore make decisions that are not compelled by the political pressures the Legislature faces. Moreover, most judges serve for several terms and are rarely ousted from office for political reasons (yes, I remember Rose Bird, but that was the rare exception). Perhaps most important, the relative freedom from electoral politics allows courts to enforce the rights of minority interests (think English learners, children with disabilities) in the face of majoritarian politics.

Courageous action by other state courts paved the way for fundamental reform by providing legislators with the cover they needed to do the right thing. For example, in the wake of the landmark Rose v. Council for Better Educ. (1989), in which the Kentucky Supreme Court struck down the Commonwealth’s entire system of public schooling (the performance of which eerily resembles the Golden State today), the Legislature quickly overhauled its entire educational finance and service-delivery system. One prominent explanation for the prompt and effective action of the Legislature is that the court’s decision provided the necessary political “cover” to allow such dramatic reform.

School finance reform is also a long-term, dynamic process.  Given the short attention span of state legislatures that are forced to deal with the latest policy crisis, courts appear to provide the type of staying power required of such long-term school reform. In states ranging from New Jersey to Wyoming to Texas, long-term, episodic judicial attention has kept the state on the path toward reform, despite turnover in the legislatures and gubernatorial mansions.

All that said, the Robles-Wong plaintiffs are not asking the court to design and implement a new school finance system from the bench. Rather, plaintiffs ask that the matter be sent back to the Legislature with specific, though broad, parameters for constitutional compliance. The court would play its modest and appropriate role: that of ensuring constitutional compliance.

Does judicial intervention work?

Finally, some have argued that court-driven school finance reform does not “work.” Researchers who have addressed this complex issue (What are our measures for success? How do we control for other factors that influence those measures?) have reached some consensus on a number of issues and continue to disagree on others. A large body of research on equity finance litigations seems to suggest that successful equity lawsuits generally increased overall equity in school finance, increased the funding for the most disadvantaged schools, and created greater centralization of funding at the state level. Little is known about the effects those lawsuits had on student achievement. Research into modern adequacy litigation is much more hotly contested, with some researchers presenting data that such lawsuits have had little (or even negative) effect on student outcomes, while others point to contradictory evidence of success in raising student outcomes.

What can be said, however, is that in nearly all states in which plaintiffs have prevailed, state legislatures have reformed educational funding systems with at least the goal of improving the adequacy and/or equity of school funding. Wasn’t that the immediate goal of such lawsuits anyway? The longer-term success of California schools will depend on finding the right mix of reforms, but it is clear that school finance reform is a necessary condition for that success.

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.

Larry Aceves on testing & spending

Larry Aceves, the dark-horse candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction who won the primary in June, dislikes “merit pay” for individual teachers but believes parents should be entitled to know how effective their child’s teachers are in improving test scores.

Aceves, who will face Assemblyman Tom Torlakson in the Nov. 2 election, made those comments during a video interview with me.

Aceves also criticized teachers’ unions for not working with districts on changing the way they are evaluated. “They have not been cooperative on how we do that. They stood back and said, ‘It ain’t my job,’” he said. But he said that in becoming engaged in the process, teachers can work to create a system that helps them improve and that puts standardized test scores in perspective, as one factor in an evaluation.

Aceves is the retired superintendent of the Franklin-McKinley School District, a small K-8 district serving largely low-income Vietnamese and Hispanic families in San Jose. He has been a teacher and a principal and is stressing his credentials as a 30-year educator, contrasting himself with Torlakson, a termed-out legislator. Aceves won with the financial support of the Association of California School Administrators.

Aceves will become superintendent during the period when the state makes the transition from state standards to common-core standards, shared with 40-plus states, with new standardized tests. He said he wants to make instruction and assessments his signature issue. There has been too much emphasis on “drill kinds of instruction” in math and English, to the exclusion of instruction in science, technology,  problem solving and critical thinking, he said. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, high-stakes testing has crowded out arts and science. Kids have been assigned double periods of reading  and math.  “That’s deadly for kids,” he said.  “They lose their enthusiasm for education.”

California cannot continue to fund schools at its current low levels, he said, or “we will lose a whole generation of children.” Despite cuts and the destruction of programs, “we’re  seeing dedicated individuals who have managed to hold it together. But we’re on skinny branches now and cannot continue.”

The California School Boards Association, ACSA, the state PTA, and lawyers representing low-income children have filed Robles-Wong v. State of California, challenging the low levels of school funding. Aceves said he looked forward to become involved in settling the case based on determining the true cost of education.

The first part of the two-part interview can be seen here. I’ll post the second part early next week.

CSBA Scott Plotkin’s troubling resignation

Caught in lies he told the news media last week about questionable credit card expenses and about salary cuts over the past year that he claimed he took – but didn’t, Scott Plotkin resigned Friday as executive director of the California School Boards Association. In a brief statement on CSBA’s web site, Plotkin wrote, “I am sorry if my actions have damaged the reputation of CSBA and the vital work being conducted by the Association.  It was certainly not my intent.”

There is no “if” about it. Plotkin, who effectively led the organization for nine years, has scorched it on his way out. And the CSBA officers and board members must go beyond their tight-lipped responses to questions about pay and expenses if it’s to rebuild credibility with the public and the nearly 1,000 school districts whose CSBA dues are funded through tax dollars.

Continue reading “CSBA Scott Plotkin’s troubling resignation”

Low-income groups file school funding suit

Adding counterpoint to a growing chorus, four groups representing low-income parents and students filed suit in Superior Court on Monday, charging California’s inadequate and inequitable school funding violates for all children an equal opportunity to a “meaningful education.”

“The State of California is failing to keep its promise of an education to our children,” states the opening lines to a 52-page complaint, Campaign for Quality Education v. State of California and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The latest suit follows by two months the filing of similar litigation, Robles-Wong v. California, by the big powers in Sacramento: the California School Boards Assn., Association of California School Administrators, the state PTA and nine school districts. The new coalition also filed its suit in Alameda County Superior Court, in anticipation that the two suits will be combined and as an indication of mutual interests as well as distinct goals.

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