‘Getting Down to Facts’ revisited

The principal author and other contributors to the massive research project on California education known as Getting Down to Facts are marking the fifth anniversary of its release by examining its impact and discussing what still needs to be done.

Clearly, a lot.

“Our initial optimism was clearly unwarranted,” wrote Susanna Loeb, Stanford University professor of education and coordinator of the 23 studies, in the preface to a policy update published last week by Policy Analysis for California Education, or PACE. The researchers and foundations that funded the projects hoped that reams of information would lead to policies “to streamline governance and to simplify and rationalize school finance,” produce smarter use of data, and more effectively develop teachers and administrators.

None of that has happened to any degree; any momentum for acting on recommendations was sidetracked by an economic downturn that walloped school budgets and by the indifference of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who raised expectations by creating the Committee on Education Excellence and hyping the Year of Education, and then ignoring it all.

But in a conference that PACE held on Thursday in Sacramento, Loeb also offered a dose of optimism. “Even though we haven’t come very far, we may be at a particularly promising moment,” she said, with Gov. Jerry Brown proposing significant finance reform and a “positive indication in recent polls that suggest public support for meaningful reform.” An online poll by PACE and the USC Rossier School of Education found that two-thirds of Californians agreed that the state should provide more money to poorer school districts even if it resulted in decreased spending in wealthier districts. A majority (55 percent) still favored higher spending in low-income schools even if it meant less spending in their neighborhood schools.

For those favoring significant changes to the system, that’s heartening. Getting Down to Facts and the Governor’s Excellence Committee were explicit in saying that K-12 under-resourced schools needed reforms and more money. In early 2008, before the recession, the state was projecting Proposition 98 increases of $5 billion over several years. Instead, since then, K-12 spending has been cut more than that.

Wtih budget cuts, state approrpriations this year are about what they were in 2004. Source: Getting Down To Facts: Five Years Later (Click to enlarge.)
With budget cuts, state K-12 appropriations this year are about what they were in 2003-04. Source: Getting Down To Facts: Five Years Later (Click to enlarge.)

So groups in the Education Coalition are resisting finance reform, which would reallocate money to disadvantaged students, and are wary – as is Brown – of new programs, mandates, and expenditures. As Rick Simpson, deputy chief of staff and education adviser for Assembly Speaker John Perez, commented at the PACE conference with a note of aggravation, “Back in 2007, we were looking at a huge windfall. Now schools have been cut billions and billions of dollars, and the conversation is, ‘You’re not going to get that money back until you do all these reforms.’”

But the researchers of Getting Down to Facts continue to argue that the state cannot sit still and wait until money owed to schools is fully restored. As Heather Rose, an associate professor of education at UC Davis, wrote in the Getting Down to Facts update regarding finance reform, “Without a stronger finance system, reaching California’s academic goals will be an uphill battle. Pouring more money into the current system is akin to pouring a concrete foundation without putting the form boards in place. It consumes substantial resources, makes a mess, and doesn’t improve the stability of your house.”

Rose and others contributed sections in the 36-page update on governance, finance, personnel, and data. Here’s a summary of their findings:

Governance

Getting Down to Facts concluded that legislative dictates, a phone-book-thick education code, and conflicting lines of authority in Sacramento inhibited sound policy-making and frustrated local districts. “California has one of the most hierarchical rule-bound school institutions in the country,” Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley, told conferees.

Not much has changed, concluded Richard Welsh and Dominic Brewer of the University of Southern California. All-consuming concern over passing a state budget has “hijacked any real conversation about policy reform,” quoting an expert they interviewed. Manipulations of Proposition 98’s funding formula by the governor and Legislature have made it difficult for districts to predict revenues.

Brown did eliminate the Office of the Secretary of Education (actually moving it onto the shoulders of Sue Burr, executive director of the State Board of Education), but there remains overlapping and competing policy authority among the State Board, the Legislature, and an elected Superintendent of Public Instruction. There’s no talk of changing that.

The Legislature has backed into one of the reforms advocated in Getting Down to Facts: more local control over spending, though without giving locals more power to raise money. Districts have been given power to spend money on 40 categorical programs, worth $4 billion, as they wish. Most have used the money to backfill their basic budgets, raising questions about whether money previously earmarked for poor kids will end up being spent on them and whether worthwhile priorities – for teacher training, adult education, career and technical education – will be dismantled as a result of austerity.

Meanwhile, some districts have innovated on their own. Los Angeles Unified is experimenting with decentralized pilot schools; Twin Rivers Unified has turned over budgeting decisions to school sites, and the seven districts that came together for the state’s Race to the Top application have pursued a collaboration through the California Office to Reform Education.

Finance

Getting Down to Facts concluded that education funding is “overly complex, irrational, and fails to link resource allocations with student need or district costs.” Brown’s plan for weighted student funding addresses some of the criteria for a sound finance system: Funneling more money to disadvantaged students and eliminating most categorical funding would make education funding simpler, more transparent, and more equitable. But California would still lag behind most states in per-student spending, even if Brown’s proposed tax increase passes. And the administration, through the State Board, is just beginning to think about new ways of holding districts accountable for student achievement, beyond the current limited array of standardized tests, that would be needed once districts have flexibility to spend money as they choose.

Simpson expressed skepticism that Brown’s funding proposal could be made ready for passage by the end of June.

Teachers and Leaders

“At the state level, there have been no significant changes in teacher or leadership policies. If anything, things have gotten worse,” wrote Jennifer Imazeki, professor of economics at San Diego State. Districts have cut money for professional development, and layoffs have left staffs demoralized.

Getting Down to Facts found significant problems, among them:

  • Administrators with relatively poor training compared with other states;
  • Difficulties identifying and dismissing weak teachers;
  • Systemic flaws in teacher compensation and distribution, with little correlation between student achievement and a pay system that rewards teachers based on education and years of experience;
  • Reforms pertaining to the evaluation, inequitable assignment and retention of teachers that are inhibited by state policies.

Imazeki noted “pockets of progress,” with Los Angeles Unified, which is piloting new teacher evaluations based on multiple measures and San Francisco Unified, which passed a parcel tax to  fund more professional development, better evaluations, opportunities for master teachers and incentives for teaching in hard-to-staff schools. A reconstituted state Commission on Teacher Credentialing, to which Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond was appointed, is focusing more attention on teacher training programs.

There’s been some action in the Legislature. However, provisions under the current version of AB 5, the primary bill proposing changes to teacher evaluations, would take effect only once cost-of-living adjustments owed to schools are paid back – a process that will take years.

Another approach that Imazeki proposes is for the Legislature to do no harm and get out of the way. “At a minimum, state policy should focus on removing regulatory barriers to these local efforts and encourage further experimentation,” she wrote, noting that these policy changes would not require additional money.

Data

Both Getting Down to Facts and the Governor’s Committee said that the development of a statewide comprehensive data system was indispensable to guide long-term educational improvement. The state currently has no idea which programs work and why; it’s difficult for the public to hold the decision makers accountable for spending without this knowledge.

After fits, starts, and mishaps, the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS) is running smoothly, collecting useful data on the performance of schools and students, along with accurate dropout information and graduation rates. But there is no agreement on where to go from there. Data advocates want to link CALPADS to higher education institutions down to preschools. And they want a teacher database, CALTIDES, which would link to CALPADS and include information on teacher salaries, certification programs and student results.

But Brown vetoed the acceptance of federal money for CALTIDES, and has questioned whether any more money should be spent on statewide data systems. The focus should be on locally generated and collected data that teachers, parents, principals and districts find useful, not on data for researchers and policy analysts.

David Plank, executive director of PACE, argues in the update that the state should build a state data warehouse that would compile and link data from pre-kindergarten through higher ed institutions and create tools useful to local educators to support continuous improvement. As it is now, the state imposes programs, like class-size reduction, without any way of measuring to see if they work; meanwhile, promising practices from local districts go unrecognized and measured.

“It is unarguable that for now,” Plank wrote, “that the persistent lack of useful educational data continues to handicap all efforts to improve the performance of California schools and students.”

Reform/revenue plan for ’12 ballot

A  partnership of education, parent, and business groups is aiming to put on the November 2012 ballot an initiative combining sweeping education reforms with a tax increase dedicated to preschool to twelfth grade, called The 2012 Kids Education Plan.

In a short statement (see below), the dozen groups used the code words for fundamental changes in school funding and personnel laws like teacher tenure without yet citing specifics: “a student centered finance system, true transparency, significant workforce reforms, and new investments in education through a statewide broad based revenue source and lowering the voter threshold on local revenue” (a reference to the current two-thirds majority needed to pass a parcel tax).

Joint statement by the groups and individuals in The 2012 Kids Education Plan.
Joint statement by the groups and individuals in The 2012 Kids Education Plan.

Ted Lempert, president of Oakland-based Children Now, said the groups were considering a tax that would raise $6 billion to $8 billion annually for education – the equivalent of roughly an additional $1,000 to $1,330 per student – an amount that would recover much of the state funding that has been cut over the past three years. While a big ask in a recession, it would still fall shy of raising California’s per-student funding to the national average.

Those who have signed on to the effort so far include one member of the Education Coalition, the Association of California School Administrators; Children Now; Bay Area Council, a San Francisco-based business group; United Way of Greater Los Angeles; Education Trust-West; Public Advocates; San Francisco-based Silver Giving Foundation; the new parent groups   Educate Our State, Educacy and Parent Revolution; and three prominent superintendents: Mike Hanson of Fresno Unified, Chris Steinhauser of Long Beach Unified, and Tony Smith of Oakland Unified.

At this point, Lempert said, it’s still in the discussion phase. Over the past month, Lempert said, he and others have reached out to other groups that have signaled interest but have not committed, like the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, California PTA, and the California Teachers Association (no official comment yet from the CTA). Also, “key folks in the Brown administration are interested in what we are pushing,” Lempert said. “I hope they get behind this.”

The presidential election ballot is expected to be jammed with initiatives, including pension and state governance reforms. Lots of ideas for tax increases –  reconfiguring Proposition 13, hitting up millionaires, taxing oil production to support higher education – are floating around, though still in flux. Lempert said that a broad-based tax that business groups could support, focused on pre-K to grade 12 education, would most appeal to voters and have the best chance of passing. With big backers behind it, a Kids Education Plan would dominate, if not chase off, other initiatives.

If $6 billion, tied to reforms, sounds familiar, that’s because Gov. Schwarzenegger’s bipartisan Committee on Education Excellence, led by Ted Mitchell, a Democrat, recommended the same amount and strategy four years ago. Schwarzenegger blew off the committee’s report, but the ideas – many stemming from the voluminous studies Getting Down to Facts in 2007 – and the approach have been simmering on back burners. “The concept is to do it all together, to put it in one package and get it done,” Lempert said. “You can get more money for education if it includes reform.”

The need to settle on the initiative’s wording and to start collecting signatures by January at the latest leaves only about two months to reach agreement on which reforms and which tax. Consensus will demand few hard-and-fast positions.

A student-centered finance system with transparency is shorthand for replacing the complex system of legacy-based funding, with dozens of categorical grants, with a system based on student needs, with more money for poor students and English learners.

The principle behind workplace reforms, Lempert said, is removing obstacles in state law preventing districts from exerting more control over hiring, including tenure, and promoting and dismissing staff. Three groups in the coalition – United Way of Greater Los Angeles, Public Advocates, and Education Trust-West – have pushed for more rigorous evaluation systems. Public Advocates also represents plaintiffs in the suit Campaign for Quality Education, charging that the state inadequately funds its schools.

Several key bills now before the Legislature would address some of the initiative’s key reforms: Assemblywoman Julia Brownley’s AB 18 on school financing and Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes’ AB 5 on teacher evaluations. But, reflecting both the compressed timing and uncertainty over whether the Legislature will pass strong bills, the coalition intends to write the reforms into the initiatives, leaving perhaps companion bills to the Legislature.

In an email, California State PTA Executive Director Paul Richman said that the PTA disagrees with this approach, while expecting to support one ballot measure funding education next year. “We believe new funding to restore programs that have been cut for students is foremost and that other potential reforms, many of which we’d get behind, can be accomplished legislatively,” he said.

Dennis Cima, vice president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, another likely ally of the effort, said that the organization agrees with many of the priorities  in the initiative and could support a broad-based tax, but will be watching to see what else is being proposed for next November. Noting that an initiative can be a blunt instrument, he said, “Is the ballot the best way?”

It may be if the intent is to ensure that reforms are passed, not watered down or frittered away by the Legislature.

Enough reports, studies and blueprints: It’s time to act on them

Public schools in California are in a state of crisis and our students are suffering the consequences. Our children deserve and require more attention, resources and support. While there has been no shortage of plans and policies for what our schools need, there seems to be a lack of political will to actually institute the needed reforms.

Last week, as an example, California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson, published a comprehensive and reasonable series of recommendations coined “Blueprint for Great Schools.” Torlakson gathered a 59-member Transition Advisory Team, made up of teachers, parents, administrators, labor and business leaders, with input from thought-leaders such as Professor Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University School of Education and David Plank, executive director of PACE,  to craft the document. The recommendations address finance, curriculum and technology, to name a few, and the “Blueprint” could revolutionize the California public education system.

Nevertheless, Torlakson’s “Blueprint” is not particularly divergent from other reports put together in recent years by consortiums of the best-schooled in California education policy. For instance, “Getting Down to Facts,” an independent research project requested by Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Committee on Education Excellence in 2007, was authored by many of the experts who worked on Torlakson’s “Blueprint” and outlined many of the same reforms and improvements. This 2007 report received, and continues to receive, many accolades from policy makers, legislators and education advocates.

The problem seems to occur in implementing these ideas. In 2008, Assemblywoman Julia Brownley attempted to create a committee focused on making these recommendations a reality; her bill flew through both the state Senate and the state Assembly on its way to becoming a law, only to be vetoed by the sponsor of the 2007 report, Gov. Schwarzenegger.

During the past eight months since Torlakson took office and commissioned this “Blueprint,” California’s K-12 public education system has taken several large steps backward. School days have been shed, talented teachers have been lost, and the state’s achievement level is among the country’s bottom 10 percent. Moreover, California’s current budget will prove truly disastrous for schools wiping out even more money from schools if budgeted revenue targets are not achieved. In summary, California’s Legislature claims to value education, but the lack of action since 2007 tells a different story.

As a parent of three young kids in the California public school system, I am pleading with the Legislature, the public, and my fellow parents: enough planning, enough studies. It is time to BUILD! We don’t need more ideas – we need to put the plans into action. So let’s get our hard hats on and get to work. NOW!

Crystal Brown is co-founder and president of Educate Our State, a parent-led, grassroots, statewide campaign fighting for high-quality public education in California. She is a Bay Area native, 17-year resident of San Francisco, and mother of three young girls. She has served on the PTA Board at Sherman Elementary School and in early-2010, she and five other “PTA moms” organized a 1,200-person town hall meeting, Public Education–Funding Our Future, looking for solutions to the local school funding crisis.

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.

Brownley to push for finance reform

As bleak as it looks for school funding this year, the stars may actually be aligning for school funding reform.

Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, is betting that this year the Legislature will pass a more equitable and simpler method for funding K-12 schools. And she and Gov. Jerry Brown agree, at least in principle, on what it would look like: a uniform per-student funding formula with extra dollars for low-income children and English learners.

Brownley is sponsoring an open-ended bill, AB 18; the first hearing on it will be March 23.

Current funding formulas are opaque and unfair. Funding varies by districts, based in part on funding levels set 30 years ago for reasons no longer defensible. Disparities are compounded by differences districts receive in categorical funding  – money allotted for specific programs. “Our current system is complicated, convoluted, and not designed toward meeting our goal of ending  the achievement gap,” Brownley told me last week.

A weighted student formula, created by blending together many categorical programs and then allocating extra dollars based on student needs, would be cleaner and clearer. Brown endorsed the idea as part of his campaign platform. But, of course, it’s the details that matter: Should regional costs of living be considered? Should low-income students be given 10 percent or 20 percent more? How do you ensure that the extra money is spent on those children?

It will be a few years before a new formula takes effect, even if there is agreement on it. Brownley and others agree that districts wouldn’t receive any less than they currently get now. New money will be needed in order for the formula to work.

Two years ago, Brownley, a Democrat from Santa Monica, thought she was making progress toward the goal, when the Legislature (with rare large bipartisan majorities) passed her bill, setting up a broadly based study group on finance reform. It would have based its work on conclusions of Getting Down To Facts, a series of Stanford-coordinated studies from 2007, and recommendations in 2008 of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Advisory Committee on Education Excellence, which endorsed the weighted student concept. But Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed Brownley’s bill and, in one of his more baffling veto messages, dismissed the study group as creating “the appearance of activity without actually translating to achievement.” This was odd, considering it was Schwarzenegger  who made it clear he didn’t want anything to do with financing reform that could cost the state more money.

So this year, Brownley is not resurrecting the idea of a working group and instead is cutting to the chase, with hopes that she’ll have a bill passed and signed by the end of the year. She said she planned to confer with Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst, who, with two others, created his own version  of a weighted student formula.

Reforms shift to districts

The creation of a foundation-funded non-profit organization led by seven superintendents is a further sign that the momentum for reform in California has shifted from Sacramento to school districts.

The seven superintendents, from Los Angeles, Long Beach, Sacramento, Fresno, San Francisco, Sanger, and Clovis unified districts, led the state’s second-round application for the federal Race to the Top competition. Although they failed to win any money, they agreed that their collaboration was worth continuing. Now, with $3 million from the San Francisco-based Silver Giving Foundation, the seven will be able to continue their work through CORE, the California Office to Reform Education.

Both Phil Halperin, the benefactor behind Silver Giving, and Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson expressed optimism that other large foundations would contribute to the districts’ efforts. That would be a coup, since over the past year national foundations, including Gates and, to an extent, Hewlett, have pulled back from underwriting large-scale state-based reform initiatives in California, after they led nowhere. Hewlett funded the Getting Down to Facts studies of school governance and finance and the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence, which Gov. Schwarzenegger promptly ignored. The Legislature has been consumed with budget deficits. Grassroots, district-led reforms represent a more promising strategy.

Silver Giving has created a second organization that will focus on district reforms: California Education Partners. One of the principals is Rick Miller, the former Deputy State Superintendent who organized the state’s first Race to the Top proposal.

As its name implies, CORE’s first project will be fleshing out the Common Core standards in math and reading, which California approved in August. The adoption of Common Core will require new textbooks, curriculum standards, teacher training, and assessments within the next four years, with no promise, other than end-of-the-year tests, the federal government will fund any of them.

Hanson said the seven districts initially will create formative assessments – diagnostics that help teachers with instruction ­–  in math and writing for elementary and middle school, which will then be made available statewide. Then the seven partners will continue the work outlined in their Race to the Top application. These include creating a new system of evaluations, based on student achievement; sharing data to guide policy decisions; and developing effective models to transform failing schools.

Only Fresno’s teachers union signed on to the Race to the Top application, but Hanson said that all of the districts will work closely with their unions moving forward.

“We have long recognized that the capacity at the state and federal levels is not there to fix what ails us,” Hanson said. “We have the capacity within our districts” to make change.

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.

Continue reading “Low-income groups file school funding suit”

Funding suit’s goal: return to local control

In filing a lawsuit later this year challenging the adequacy of state education spending, the California School Boards Assn. and partners will have a goal in mind: a return to local control of K-12 funding.

In their long-anticipated suit over adequate funding, the California School Boards Assn. and its parter in the Education Coalition, the  Association of California School Administrators, will challenge the state not only on how much it spends on public schools — no surprise there — but also how it funds them. They plan to revisit the ’70s, with  its historic Serrano decision, which equalized school spending, and Proposition 13, which shifted control funding and power to Sacramento. They’ll argue that it’s time to take another look and this time do it right.

In an interview, CSBA  Executive Director Scott Plotkin confirmed the Mercury News story that the two organizations will file suit in coming months over the state’s failure to adequately fund eduction. And he outlined what will be the thrust of the suit: a demand to return to more control. They’re turning to the courts, because the Legislature and voters, by initiative, have severely limited locals’ ability to raise money. Continue reading “Funding suit’s goal: return to local control”

Governor squelches finance reform

In vetoing AB 8, which would have taken the first step to overhauling the irrational way the state funds K-12 education, Gov. Schwarzenegger once again gave the back of his hand to recommendations of his Eduction Excellence Committee.

If  the blog had been up last month, I would have ranted about this then.  The Educated Guess is still fuming, so let me vent.

It’s not often that by near-unanimity, Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature agree on a potentially significant education reform.

That happened with the passage (79-0 in the Assembly, 31-6 in the Senate) of AB 8, which would have taken the first small but important step toward rethinking how the state funds K-12 schools.

But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, with water, levies and dams on the brain , vetoed it hours before the signing deadline for legislation.

He did so with a puzzling and dismissive veto message.

He did so even though AB 8 was in line with the recommendations of his own Advisory Committee on Education Excellence.

He did so even though the Hewlett Foundation* had offered to pick  up the costs of the study that the bill created. Continue reading “Governor squelches finance reform”