Compromise on school fees bill

Advocates of a complaint process for parents and students who believe they’re being charged illegal fees have amended a bill to satisfy all of the main opponents, save the silent one who hasn’t been heard from yet. That’s Gov. Jerry Brown, who vetoed similar legislation last year.

On Wednesday, the Senate Education Committee approved AB 1575 without opposition, and changes that were made to the bill may smooth its way through the Senate and on to Brown’s desk. One factor could motivate him to sign it this year: Doing so would settle a lawsuit against the state that the state is likely to lose.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California is pushing the bill that Assemblymember Ricardo Lara (D-South Gate) is sponsoring for the second straight year. Two years ago, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit against the state after discovering, through an informal investigation, that dozens of school districts were charging students for textbooks, lab materials, Advanced Placement test fees, and sports uniforms. Students who couldn’t afford them were sometimes publicly humiliated.

The ACLU based its lawsuit on the state Constitution’s guarantee of “a system of common schools by which a free school shall be kept up and supported in each district…” In the 1984 decision Hartzell v. Connell, the state Supreme Court explicitly prohibited charges and fees for school programs. Former Gov. Schwarzenegger wanted to resolve the lawsuit, and the judge in Los Angeles County Superior Court agreed to put it on hold while a bill encoding the fees ban into statute and establishing a reimbursement process went through the Legislature in 2011.

Last year, in vetoing AB 165, Brown wrote that “this bill takes the wrong approach.” It would “mandate that every single classroom in California post a detailed notice and that all 1,042 school districts and over 1,200 charter schools follow specific complaint, hearing, and audit procedures, even where there have been no complaints, let alone evidence of any violation. This goes too far.”

Lara’s new amended bill drops some of the requirements that groups like the Association of California School Administrators and the California Association of School Business Officials considered onerous.

The requirement of posting a notice of the prohibition on fees in every classroom remains. So does the complaint process, which is based on the procedures in the settlement of the Williams lawsuit protecting low-income children, requiring textbooks in every classroom, qualified teachers in every school, and clean, safe facilities. Parents who believe they are being charged illegally can file a complaint to their principal, who can resolve it or refer the matter to the district office, which has a month to reimburse and settle. If not, the parent can forward the complaint to the state Department of Education for a determination and order to reimburse. CDE’s estimated cost of administering the process is $350,000 per year.

Gone from the bill are provisions that appeared to involve state mandates: a requirement that districts verify early in the school year to make sure no fees are being charged in any school, an audit provision at the end of the school year, and the imposition of a fine on districts that fail to comply with the reimbursements.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit is moving forward again, according to Brooks Allen, director of education advocacy for the ACLU of Southern California. The Brown administration took the position that blame for illegal fees lies with the districts, not the state. But in January, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Carl West ruled that the state can’t slough off its responsibility to enforce children’s right to a free public education.

That decision may serve to temper Brown’s inclination, if he has it, to veto Lara’s bill again.

Note to readers: This is the last piece I’ll be posting on TOP-Ed. On Monday, co-writer Kathy Baron and I will start work at EdSource, where we will continue writing daily on California education issues while joining EdSource’s talent staff to expand our coverage. To learn more about the move and the future of TOP-Ed, please go here.

160-day minimum year coming

Call it a last-minute clarification or a June surprise, another piece of bad news: A trailer bill that the Legislature will vote on Wednesday permits districts to slash the school year by an additional three weeks for the next two years, if voters reject Gov. Brown’s tax increase in November. That’s twice what  Gov. Jerry Brown seemed to suggest in the May budget revise when he proposed the elimination of 15 days divided over a two-year period. Instead, the Legislature is prepared to authorize a 160-day year, likely the lowest in the nation and far behind other advanced nations; nearly all states have a 180-day year, which California also required before 2010.

In one sense, nothing has changed. Brown hasn’t suggested less funding for schools than the $53.6 billion for 2012-13 that the Legislature approved in passing the budget last week. Districts will have to negotiate a shorter year with their unions; they can’t declare it unilaterally, and most districts won’t go that low.

But the language in AB 1476 (section 50, midway through a very long bill) is a stark message that a defeat of the tax increase will create more than a one-year revenue crisis for schools.

Brown basically spared K-12 schools cuts in this year’s state budget but is promising to slash school funding by $5.5 billion if voters reject the income tax/sales tax increase. That translates to $441 per student, about an 8.4 percent cut in funding. Eliminating 15 days out of a minimum 175 days would be an 8.6 percent cut in the calendar. So cutting 7.5 days each of the next two years would solve only half of the gap, leaving districts to make other cuts through layoffs, benefits, or non-pay areas.

Lowering the minimum year to 160 days now would be too late for those districts and unions that already have negotiated potential cuts. Sacramento City Unified teachers earlier this month approved a two-day furlough, plus an additional 10 days, lowering the school year to 168 days, if the tax initiative fails.

A Senate staff member said that the intent of the trailer bill language is to give districts more flexibility to cope with terrible choices. Most districts won’t go to a 160-day year, but it will be an option. Because districts must submit balanced budgets for two years beyond the current year, districts can negotiate with certainty for continued furloughs through 2013-14. The governor approved the trailer bill language, which clears up any ambiguous reading of his earlier proposals, the staff member said.

But Robert Miyashiro, vice president of the education consulting firm School Services of California, said that the Legislature shaped the budget the way it is, so it is disingenuous to say, It is out of our hands. Legislators strategically set it up to say the schools must take a big cut if the initiative flops.

A spokesman for the California Teachers Association said that the union had not read the trailer bill language and could not comment. The trailer bill also contains language permitting  teachers and other school employees to accrue a full year of  vesting for pensions if a district’s school year drops to as few as 160 days.

Some cuts, cash in budget deal

John Fensterwald co-authored Buy cialis pills this article.

Legislative leaders protected most student financial aid in the Cal Grants program and preserved status quo funding for charter schools in the budget deal announced yesterday between Democrats and Gov. Jerry Brown.

The agreement comes less than a week after legislators approved a $92 billion spending plan that eliminated some of the governor’s biggest education proposals, including his plan to switch the entire school finance system to a weighted student funding formula.

Few details were revealed from the agreement announced yesterday; Senate staff members said the specific language of the budget trailer bills would be written over the weekend and taken up in the budget committee on Monday. A floor vote could come as soon as Tuesday.

Staff confirmed that the bills would not raise the eligibility for Cal Grants, the $1.5 billion student aid program. Brown recommended raising the grade point average (GPA) required for the Cal Grant A program from 3.0 to 3.25, and increasing the GPA for Cal Grant B awards from 2.0 to 2.75.

Michele Siqueiros, executive director of the Campaign for College Opportunity and a board member on the California Student Aid Commission, said taking the GPA increases off the table is “absolutely a great thing for students,” because the proposal threatened to shift the core value of Cal Grants from a need-based scholarship into a merit-based program.

The Campaign for College Opportunity sent a letter to the governor last week opposing that and two other recommendations: reducing the Cal Grant award by 40 percent for new and continuing students attending independent nonprofit colleges in California, and linking Cal Grant eligibility to federal standards for the Pell Grant program. The budget deal reportedly contains neither of those proposals.

However, students attending private, for-profit colleges may want to check their schools’ graduation and loan default rates. The Legislature did accept Brown’s bid to crack down on so-called diploma mills, private for-profit institutions, by withholding Cal Grants from these schools for one year if their graduation rate falls below 30 percent or their student loan default rate is 15 percent or higher. That could affect more than 80 postsecondary institutions, according to an analysis conducted for the Student Aid Commission.

“It says to colleges, especially if they’re going to charge a lot of money, that students should be getting a lot of value for that money,” said Siqueiros, adding that means getting a job that pays enough to pay back the loan.

Brown has charter schools’ backs

Brown has persuaded legislative leaders to restore an unexpected $50 million cut to charter schools that they approved in passing the state budget last week. The cut would have been $100 to $112 per charter student and would have widened a funding gap between charters and district schools.

But charter leaders will be holding their breath until the agreement  is written into the language of a trailer bill and it becomes a done deal.

The money is for the block grant that charters get in lieu of small, restricted amounts of money for special purposes known as categorical programs. In his budget, Brown flat-funded the block program but included an additional $50 million to accommodate what the Department of Finance is projecting to be a 15.5 percent increase in charter school attendance next year, compared with less than 1 percent more in district schools.

The surge in enrollment reflects not only additional schools but also schools adding grades and more students per class to cope with budget cuts, said Jed Wallace, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association. Over the last four years, the average charter school has grown from 360 to 400 students.

Earlier this year, the Legislative Analyst’s Office calculated that charter schools received 7 percent or $395 per student less than district schools, including $150 per student less in categorical funding. That difference would have increased to $260 per student without the $50 million growth factor.

“Our members were very vocal about this,” Wallace said. “It looks as though funding will be restored, and we appreciate this.”

Brown, who was a creator of two charter schools while mayor of Oakland, has become a protector of charters as governor.

Foster youths’ financial climb through college getting even steeper

The last time Lerone Matthis was released from the Division of Juvenile Justice, in April 2008, he feared he had reached bottom.

“I was discouraged by the prospects for a meaningful future,” Matthis recalled.

He didn’t have a place to rest his head, bathe, or change his clothes. He wore the same jeans and a white shirt that was dingy around the neck because it hadn’t been washed for a month. He bought socks from a neighborhood liquor store, relied on relatives and friends for food and shelter, and at times the former foster youth simply went hungry.

However, Matthis had earned a GED in jail. When he got out, he enrolled in City College of San Francisco through an educational support system for the formerly incarcerated. Still, the 29-year-old single father of two young children never believed he would graduate.

Lerone Matthis at his graduation from City College of San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of Steve Ngo, City College).
Lerone Matthis at his graduation from City College of San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of Steve Ngo, City College).

“Four years ago, I did not know what it meant to dream, to believe in a future, or to have faith in myself,” Matthis recalled last Saturday, in a commencement speech to hundreds of faculty, administrators, and students at City College, where he graduated with honors.

This fall, Matthis will enter the University of California, Davis, where he plans to major in managerial economics, continue studying for a master’s degree in tax accounting, and eventually become a Certified Public Accountant.

The Richmond resident credits the Guardian Scholars Program for his transformation. The nationally recognized, privately funded program provides college financial assistance and academic guidance to former foster youth at more than 30 campuses across California, including private universities.

Guardian Scholars receive up to $5,000 to pay for costs not covered by financial aid, such as rent, transportation, and childcare. But now Guardian Scholars is finding it difficult to meet the growing needs of former foster youth. Michael McPartlin, coordinator of the Guardians Scholars Program at City College, said he no longer advertises the program because it is filled to capacity. Currently, it serves about 200 of the 900 students who have identified themselves as former foster youth.

Access to higher education, and the employment and economic advantages that go with it, continues to be dismal for former foster care youth. It’s estimated that between 7 and 13 percent of former foster youth enroll in college.

A 2010 report by Casey Family Programs found that only 2 percent of young people from foster care complete their bachelor’s degree, compared to 30 percent of the general population. Common barriers to college include low high school graduation rates, emotional and mental health issues, long-term effects of abuse and neglect, academic learning gaps, and a poor system of transferring school records, according to the Casey Family website. Paying for college is also a major impediment.

In his May budget revise, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed to decrease Cal Grant awards in the 2012-13 academic year by $111.5 million, by lowering the amount students can get while attending public colleges. If approved, this would affect about 30,800 students, according to the governor’s website.

In addition, starting next month, changes to the Federal Pell Grant program will limit the number of years students can receive the aid from nine to six years. This fails to consider that former foster youth, as well as other low-income students, often start in remedial math and English courses due to challenges in their K-12 education, and may need three or four semesters to qualify for college-level courses. For these students, it can take more than six years to complete their undergraduate degree.

Sugyn Paynay, a 22-year-old Guardian Scholar who is completing her Associate of Art degree in child development, had to take four remedial English courses before she could enroll in an English course that was transferable to a four-year university. Even with priority registration available to Guardian Scholars, some of the other classes Paynay needed were full when she went to sign up.

The only way she can pay for her education is by taking out student loans, something she says will be difficult since she plans follow a career path where she may not earn enough to pay back large loans.

“It’s okay to get a loan if you’re becoming a nurse. You’ll eventually make a good [amount] of money, but I’m going into teaching,” she said. “Getting a loan will be a real financial burden while I’m in school, as well as in the future.”

In spite of educators’ enthusiasm to improve access to higher education for foster care youth, government agencies are faced with the realities of persistent budget deficits, said Jill Berrick, co-director of the Center for Child and Youth Policy at the University of California Berkeley.

“Until the economy turns around, very few social programs in California are going to be experiencing anything close to full funding,” she said.

On the Saturday of his graduation from City College, a white, red, and blue ribbon with a medal hung around Matthis’ neck. His graduation cap had the year “2012” airbrushed on it. On the back of his black graduation gown were two large pictures of his children with the words that kept him pushing forward when things became challenging: “Congratulations Daddy.”

“My kids love their daddy. But I worried they would never be proud of me,” Matthis said.

Being part of the Guardian Scholars Program, and other support groups on campus, allowed him to face the emotions he felt as a teen. This year, he spoke at a conference in San Diego about mental health problems in black males as part of his efforts to educate others about young men in the foster care system or correctional facilities. As a Guardian Scholar, he says, he learned to raise his own expectations of what he can accomplish.

“Although former foster youth are dealing with significant challenges,” said Matthis, “they can and will succeed if given the right tools or guidance.”

Rosa Ramirez (@rosamramirez) is a Bay Area reporter who has covered health, immigration, Hispanic affairs and food policy. She recently completed a dual master’s program in journalism and Latin American Studies from UC Berkeley. A longer version of this article appeared in The Chronicle of Social Change.

No Child Left Behind’s successor, smartly written, can make impact

If you had $23 billion a year dedicated to improving low-income children’s education and addressing a wide variety of other congressionally negotiated purposes, what would you do?

This is the question Congress should be asking when its members finally sit down to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Instead, however, it’s more likely that Congress will simply tinker around the edges in hopes of “fixing” the ESEA — also known today as the No Child Left Behind Act — rather than transforming it.

The basic provisions of Title I, the ESEA’s largest program — providing more than $14 billion a year to more than 54,000 schools and 23 million students — have barely changed in almost a half-century. The program has been an untouchable symbol of the nation’s commitment to bettering the lives of schoolchildren from low-income families, despite little evidence that it has changed the odds for most of its intended recipients. And similar programs have had comparably modest effects.

This lack of transformational change occurs because federal education legislation typically is a blunt instrument that only asks schools to adhere to regulations based on imperfect policy and outdated evidence. Yet, history tells us that carefully crafted and focused legislation can do a few things: promote equality of opportunity; create infrastructure to help improve quality; stimulate state and local reform; and support good research, innovation, and the dissemination of knowledge.

The first step to realizing the promise of legislation is to clear out the underbrush of existing ESEA programs and start over from scratch. New legislation focused on only a few evidence-based strategies for improving equality and quality should replace the old programs. This would build on knowledge accumulated over the past three decades from basic research on teaching, learning, and organizational improvement, as well as lessons from high-performing countries, states, and districts. The dramatic reduction of programs would eliminate most regulations and administrative costs, thereby giving states and districts a greater opportunity to concentrate on thoughtfully implementing new programs.

While the timing of the reauthorization process remains uncertain, the new ESEA, whenever it emerges, should address three specific issues: reducing inequalities, stimulating quality, and funding new practical research and innovation.

Incentives for equitable funding

The first title, or section, of a new ESEA should offer states and districts incentives to develop equitable funding systems, provide additional funds to high-poverty secondary schools, and support preschool and kindergarten opportunities for low-income students. Each of these addresses a specific and critical need in our schools. In many states, school funding formulas favor students from well-to-do families and communities. With political will and federal incentives, this can be corrected.

The Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based group devoted to high school reform, cites evidence from Johns Hopkins University that finds that approximately 13 percent, or 2,000, of the nation’s public high schools account for 50 percent of our country’s dropouts. The second component of this section of ESEA would provide resources and ongoing training for the faculty and staff members in those high schools and their feeder middle schools to create the kinds of supporting, motivating, and challenging environments necessary to prepare and retain their students.

Finally, a large body of literature finds that many children from low-income families have not learned the language and behavioral skills that will prepare them for 1st grade and beyond. These students enter 1st grade with a huge gap in size of vocabulary and oral-language skills and rarely catch up. To address this, the new ESEA would include a focus on training Head Start and other preschool and kindergarten teachers to provide these fundamental skills. None of this is easy to do, but all of it is necessary if we are to reduce the degree of inequality in our nation’s schools, one of the largest in the developed world.

Encouraging what works

A second title in the ESEA would focus on supporting long-term strategies to improve the effectiveness of education for all students in states, districts, and schools. The effort would build on the powerful literature on organizational theory and international best practices that finds that a positive and supportive climate and a focus on continuous improvement of instructional practice are the secret sauce in countries, states, and districts with effective schools. Singapore; Finland; Ontario, Canada; the state of Massachusetts; Long Beach, Calif.; and Austin, Texas, are all important examples. Sustained, focused, evidence-oriented effort works.

The first initiative in this title would include authorization of funding for state and local implementation of the Common Core State Standards, including aligned assessments, curricula, and professional development. Successful implementation that was sustained over time would model a continuous-improvement strategy, which could lead to its becoming standard practice.

Additionally, this title would require states to develop accountability systems based on transparency. Politically set goals and intensive and extensive testing and arbitrary punishments designed by people in Washington alienate rather than motivate people in the field.

New state-designed systems with limited numbers of high-stakes tests would focus on making steady improvement around closing achievement gaps and increasing overall achievement and graduation rates. Use of the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, by states and the federal government would supplement state systems. PISA is particularly important because it comes the closest of many assessments to effectively measuring important cognitive abilities that require what psychologists call “transfer skills,” taking knowledge from one setting and applying it effectively in another.

Making room for innovation

A third and final ESEA title would establish an applied research, development, evaluation, and innovation program that would supplement current research and development in the Education Department. The new program would be focused on understanding and improving the particular strategies proposed in the first two titles. The program would also include aggressive exploration of the use of information technology to improve educational opportunities of all students in and outside of school.

The approach suggested here is not radical, but it does require members of Congress to consider the development of K-12 legislation in a new way and asks them and state and local governments to focus on critical problems in education today. Unless the Elementary and Secondary Education Act moves away from its anachronistic compliance-based and politically expansive approach, federal legislation will not be able to support states and districts truly interested in dramatically improving schools and student learning.

Marshall S. Smith is a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and was the dean of education and a professor at Stanford University. He has served in five presidential administrations, including serving as the chief of staff to Shirley Hufstedler, the nation’s first secretary of education, during the Carter administration; and as a senior adviser to current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. He was the undersecretary and acting deputy U.S. secretary of education during the Clinton administration. This commentary was adapted for Education Week from his essay in the book Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit (Harvard Education Press, 2011) and was first published in Education Week.

CA breaks another bad record

More California school districts than ever before are heading toward insolvency. The State Department of Education’s Second Interim Status Report for 2011-12, released yesterday, named 188 districts with serious financial problems; of those, 12 have negative certifications, meaning they won’t be able to meet payroll and other bills for this academic year.

California schools that may not be able to make ends meet. (source: State Dept. of Education) Click to enlarge
California schools that may not be able to make ends meet. (Source: State Dept. of Education) Click to enlarge.

It’s a steep increase over the first interim report, released last February, which we wrote about here. At that time, there were seven districts on the negative list and 120 in qualified status. With the increases, more than 2.6 million of California’s 6.2 million school children attend schools facing uncertain financial futures.

“This is the kind of record no one wants to set. Across California, parents, teachers, and administrators are increasingly wondering how to keep their schools’ lights on, their bills paid, and their doors open,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson in a written statement. “The deep cuts this budget crisis has forced — and the uncertainties about what lies ahead — are taking an unprecedented and unacceptable toll on our schools.”

Given the years of budget cuts to education, the new numbers didn’t come as a surprise to school finance officials, said Mike Hulsizer, head of governmental affairs for the Kern County Office of Education. But it will get worse if neither of the school tax initiatives passes next November. “There is no question that this understates the risk that districts are facing,” said Hulsizer, because many of the districts counted on funds from Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax increase in planning their 2012-13 budgets.

K-12 schools would receive an extra $2.8 billion if the initiative passes, but Brown is proposing cutting K-12 schools about $5 billion – $441 per student – midyear if it fails. Districts weren’t ordered to budget one way or another. Although some county superintendents wanted schools to budget for the worst-case scenario, others told school districts to plan either way, but make sure they have a Plan B in case of a negative vote at the ballot box. “The county’s position is that a district needs to be able to weather the trigger if it does happen,” said Santa Clara County Office of Education Superintendent Chuck Weis.  “If a district is already on the edge, then plan for the worst.”

Joel Montero, CEO of the state’s Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team (FCMAT), told a state Assembly committee two weeks ago that small and rural districts face the largest impact from another round of midyear cuts. “Small and tiny rural districts don’t really have an economy of scale,” said Montero. They don’t have enough money or students to absorb any additional losses, particularly when those losses come in the form of deferrals, the $9 billion-plus that the state owes to school districts.

Options for school districts that have run out of options. (Source:  Leg. Analyst) Click to enlarge.
Options for school districts that have run out of options. (Source: Leg. Analyst) Click to enlarge.

“So the decision that you have to make as a school district is whether or not you can afford to fund that deferral for the term and if you can’t then it becomes a cut for you in a way,” Montero explained to subcommittee members.

Five of the nine districts that received a negative certification fall into the small and/or rural category.  The tiniest, La Grange Elementary School District in Stanislaus County, will be shutting down at the end of this school year and sending its six students to other districts.

Two of the districts, Vallejo City Unified and South Monterey Joint Union High School, have already been bailed out by the state and are under a state-appointed administrator. Linda Grundhoffer, the Chief Business Official in South Monterey – formerly King City Joint Union High School District – said ever since the district went under state control in 2009 the onslaught of budget cuts “are just making it harder for this district to recover.”  The district is seeking to lower the interest rate on its state loan from 5.44 percent to 1 percent through legislation, but so far Senate bill 1240 and Assembly bill 1858 are on the suspense files in the appropriations committees of their respective houses.

In an unusual twist, this year’s negative list also contains a small but very wealthy district. At a little over $170,000, the median household income in the San Mateo County foothills community of Portola Valley is nearly three times the state average. But the district is now trying to stave off a state takeover after an audit found a shortfall of about $850,000 for this school year plus an additional half-million dollars allegedly misappropriated by the former superintendent, who’s already facing felony charges stemming from his tenure as chief financial officer in the neighboring Woodside Elementary District.

The list of districts on the negative and qualified lists may continue to set somber new records depending on what happens in November.  “Second interim certifications are assuming a better budget environment than realistically may be there after November,” FCMAT’s Montero told TOPed.  “Without that assumption, it is likely the numbers of qualified and negative districts would have been higher.”

Busting out of traditional notion of school demands taking risks

Maybe I’m too close to it. I’ve started schools, run schools, taught in schools, gone to school, visited schools – and they all look pretty much the same.

As I imagine what schools might look like, I bump up against my preconceived and ingrained notions of what school has always been – seat time, mandated testing, teacher credentialing, students in rows of desks, classroom management, staffing, custodial needs, and on and on and on. These stereotypes throw up barriers to any new notion of what schools could actually be. And I know that I am not alone. Even “breakthrough models” of schooling are currently organized around these traditional structures.

This coming weekend’s Maker Faire Bay Area (May 19-20) takes my insane hobby of imagining what future schools might look like into sharper focus. EdSurge and  Maker Faire created a pavilion focused on DIY learning in schools – schools that will need to look and function much differently to support this type of learning.

Even with this, I cannot help but think that they won’t look much different than today – unless:

  • We become comfortable with taking risks in schools;
  • Technology becomes more seamlessly interwoven into student learning experiences;
  • Online content providers evolve beyond video lectures with multiple-choice assessments.

Risk is a four-letter word

Our school systems fail in very predictable and repetitive ways. The same schools have been failing the same demographics of students for generations. And yet when something even slightly different is suggested to improve learning outcomes, we ask for a deep evidence base that proves this new strategy has worked before.

Alex Hernandez, of Charter School Growth Fund, proposes a FabLab for school – a place where educators and wannabe educators can try out their new models of schooling in a risk-tolerant and safe environment (after school and summers).

More summer programs should be tinkering in this same way. At SMASH Academy, Level Playing Field Institute is doing just that. While students are still attending classes, each student has a laptop and works through a tech-enabled, project-based curriculum for 5 weeks. Instructors, mostly local high school teachers, are encouraged to try things that they are not trying at their regular school, particularly things using technology. The hope is that these practices are workshopped over the summer and then imported into their year-round classrooms.

Online Learning 2

The more celebrated and highly utilized online learning experiences provide short videos and text followed by multiple-choice or similar assessments. Teachers then get analytics about their classes and students. Some see this as an improved instructional model. For me, it is a more efficient instructional model if what we are trying to do is ensure students receive a compulsory education as evaluated by statewide mandated assessments. What if we want students to thrive in a 21st century economy?

This is another place SMASH is innovating. Piloting a new platform, called MySciHigh, teachers and students will be immersed in a project-based, blended learning environment where students complete interactive tasks online and in the classroom. Once students prove proficiency of the standards, they unlock an online, cooperative project that requires them to apply everything they learned throughout the unit by creating something original and new. While online education and project-based learning are not new, the marriage of the two on a scalable platform is.

We need to stop pandering to our “digital native” students and provide structures and platforms that better enable their success – and success not just on statewide measures of assessment, but on outcomes related to college and career readiness. Through MySciHigh, we hope to tap into what motivates students to learn at the highest levels and see technology as part of the means to get there. While we have some big hypotheses based on years of research and practice, we are going to listen to our student and teacher users, apply real-time data and feedback, and keep improving through a nonstop process of inquiry.

Could this change schools for the better? Possibly. But if we do not take risks and apply the Lean Startup methodology to schools, we’ll fail generations more of the same students – and that is just not OK.

Robert Schwartz is the Executive Director of the Level Playing Field Institute. He spent three years as Chief Academic Officer for ICEF Public Schools in South Los Angeles, leading the strategic expansion of the academic program. As the founding principal at ICEF’s flagship high school, the first three classes achieved a 100 percent graduation rate, with 97 percent accepted to four-year universities. Prior to that, Robert taught middle school science in East and South Los Angeles. He graduated from Binghamton University with degrees in Biology and Classics, and earned his MA in Urban Education Policy and EdD in Urban Educational Leadership from USC.

Imagine schools without good-for-nothing moms

This weekend, America will observe Mother’s Day for the 98th time since it was officially added to the calendar in 1914. Of the 85 million mothers in America, about 5 million are stay-at-home moms, society’s great good-for-nothings.

Officially, motherhood is worthless. Unpaid work does not count in economic statistics, so moms officially contribute nothing to the economy – unless they also take a paying job. We all know this is nonsense, but there it is. The numbers don’t lie, right?

Jeff's Mom
Jeff's mom, Diane

Every year at this time, a small flurry of articles, not all of them silly, discuss the dollar-equivalent value of motherhood. Mothers aren’t paid for being moms – but if they were, what would be their base pay? Should we believe the estimate that Mom could be outsourced for about $60,000 per year? (Dads, knock that smug look off your face. The same source pegs your dollar-equivalent annual value at around $20,000.)

The usual reaction to these articles is a wave of the hand. How silly, right? Some things have price tags. Those things exist in the world of money. Other things don’t have a clear price, and they exist in the world of stuff-we-take-for-granted.

Like moms.

Money is valuable for what it can buy, but not everything valuable is for sale. Savvy teachers and school leaders are aces at recruiting help for free. Many moms (and some dads) are eager volunteers. They bring commitment and skills of tremendous value to the kids, schools, and programs they support. They tutor students who need help, including their own. They organize activities. They chaperone field trips. They organize fundraisers. They help in the office, or the library, or at the curb. They translate for parents who have trouble with English. They support after-school programs or coach teams.

Unfortunately, this river of unpaid, mostly mom-powered volunteer capacity flows unevenly through America’s communities. In the most privileged communities, parents are eager, able, and available to help. But in places where moms and dads are just scraping by or struggling with English, it can be difficult even to arrange parent-teacher conferences.

This is more than just an impression, or a stereotype. In 2011, a survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported major differences in volunteering activity by ethnicity, marital status, and educational attainment.

Data on volunteering (click to enlarge)
Data on volunteering (click to enlarge)

Volunteerism is a valuable resource everywhere, but it is unevenly distributed. Some communities and schools are in a better position than others to recruit moms and dads and put their skills to work for kids. This difference plays a very real and usually overlooked role in the gaps between schools of privilege and schools of poverty. Addressing this disadvantage is part of the reason why states allocate extra funds to schools where there are concentrations of students in poverty and with limited English skills.

Mother’s Day is a good time to remember that while money can buy things of value, not everything of value has a price.

Jeff Camp is the primary author of, a primer on education reform options in California. He co-chairs the Education Circle of Full Circle Fund, an organization of “good for nothings” in the Bay Area. Full Circle coordinates small teams of volunteers working in support of great nonprofit organizations that need a little help to get to the next level, whatever that may be. A visual summary of Ed100 can be found at .

LAO: District oversight works

Despite occasional interference by the Legislature, the system of fiscal oversight over districts by county offices of education has worked, the Legislative Analyst’s Office has concluded.

“Given the substantial fiscal challenges that school districts have faced over the last two decades, the state’s fiscal oversight system has been effective in ensuring that school districts remain fiscally healthy,” the LAO wrote in School District Fiscal Oversight and Intervention, a report released on Monday.

In the two decades that the current system has been in effect, only eight districts – an average of one district every 2½ years – have sought emergency loans from the state. That compares with 26 districts in the dozen preceding years.

And not one district has sought state protection (crossing fingers here) since the onset of the current recession, in which districts’ budgets have been slashed. And that includes Inglewood Unified, which a year ago was seen as a dead district walking, expected to run out of cash at any time. (The fiscal equivalent of last rites, SB 477, a bill that would have appropriated a $13 million state loan, was on the docket.) But, as a result of its own fiscal austerity and monitoring from the Los Angeles County Office of Education, Inglewood surprised observers in March by obtaining a $17.5 million temporary bank loan called a TRAN (Tax and Revenue Anticipation Note) that should enable it to pay its bills at least through late fall.

A state takover of a district that's broke sets off dual process; one involves a takeover of district operations by a state-appointed administrator, the other securing a long-term bond to make the district solvent. Source: LAO. (Click to enlarge.)
A state takeover of an insolvent district sets off a dual process; one involving running district operations by a state-appointed administrator, the other securing a big enough long-term bond to eliminate an operating deficit. Source: LAO. (Click to enlarge.)

That’s not to say Inglewood and perhaps many other districts won’t face insolvency, especially if the proposed tax initiative fails in November, leading to automatic cuts of  $450 per student. Inglewood is one of seven districts that county offices of education have certified as likely to be unable to balance their budgets this year or next. A record 120 districts have been given a “qualified” rating, meaning they may run into trouble within two years.

How the process works

The early warnings – the requirement that districts balance their budgets next year and two years out – are the strength of the system, the LAO found.

After they pass their budgets, districts must submit them to the county for approval, which usually is automatic. Then, twice during the year – in the fall (the first interim report) and in the winter (the second interim, which factors in the governor’s proposed state budget submitted in January) – districts update their financial status. County offices look at a district’s cash balances, reserve levels, operating deficits, attendance and enrollment estimates, salary and benefit costs, and building maintenance costs. It’s largely a self-certification process, but sometimes county offices override, as was the case for the recent second interim report in Inglewood, in which  the district gave itself a qualified rating, while the county insisted on negative.  The county projected fewer students, meaning less state money, and questioned the savings on health benefits from shifting to a new provider, among other things.

County offices have the authority to review contracts with unions and district suppliers for districts with a qualified certification. They can appoint financial advisers to monitor operations for districts whose budgets  are deemed negative. County offices also can stop and rescind financial decisions that districts make.

Inglewood has been under these controls, though it has made the tough decisions to cut staff. Before new administrators  who knew finance were brought in, the district’s auditing and financial systems were a mess. And it has lost about 4,000 students – a quarter of its enrollment – primarily to charter schools. Districts with declining enrollments tend to face the biggest financial problems, the LAO noted.

Glenston Thompson, Inglewood’s chief operations officer, said the district has cut $30 million to $40 million out of a budget of $130 million. Teachers agreed to take 10 furlough days the past two years, and five in the coming year. Class sizes have grown, with a waiver from the State Board of Education. Still, it has to close a $4 million deficit in the next budget.

The county’s job is to keep its feet to the fire, not dictate actions if that can be avoided. “Having a county office there helps the district and the public to understand the district’s precarious situation,” said Melvin Iizuka, the director of the Division of Business Advisory Services for Los Angles County Office of Education. “We remain impartial.”

Avoid emergency loans at all costs

The state has issued eight emergency loans to districts since 1991, with King City, whose troubles predated the current recession, the latest. Source: LAO. (Click to enlarge.)
The state has issued eight emergency loans to districts since 1991, with King City, whose troubles predated the current recession, the latest. Source: LAO. (Click to enlarge.)

Districts should view an emergency loan from the state as the last resort, for the money comes with a loss of control and a stiff, long-lasting price. The state superintendent of public instruction appoints an administrator to run the district. In order to keep bankrupt districts from affecting the state’s credit, the Legislature switched to requiring that districts obtain bonds from private investors through the state’s Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank. As a result, King City is paying 5.44 percent on the $13 million loan it obtained in 2009 with interest eating up 9 percent of its general fund budget; it will face a pre-payment penalty if it pays off the loan in less than 20 years. By comparison, Oakland Unified is paying 1.78 percent on the $100 million it borrowed in 2003.

The LAO report’s sole criticism is for the Legislature, for intruding in the oversight process. In order to ease the impact of budget cuts, lawmakers lowered the minimum reserve requirements for school districts to one–third of their existing levels, “making it more difficult for county offices to raise concerns with districts that were carrying low reserve levels,” the report said. Then, last year, in order to discourage layoffs of teachers, the Legislature prevented county offices from disapproving budgets that weren’t balanced one or two years out. Some districts ignored the warning, and Gov. Jerry Brown backed off insisting on it.

“As districts continue to struggle in the aftermath of the recent recession, we believe preserving the existing oversight system is vital for fostering the ongoing fiscal well–being of districts,” said the report, which was written by K-12 analyst Edgar Cabral.

Local funding can come to the rescue of California schools

California parents often imagine that their children attend a “local” school. They are mostly wrong. In a very real sense, California no longer has local schools – it has a system of state schools.

California voters know that their state school system is under grave financial stress, and that it is harming kids. According to a recent survey by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), most Californians (90 percent) believe that “the state budget situation” is a problem for schools. Two-thirds of voters surveyed said that education quality is a big problem. More than 90 percent were concerned about laying off teachers. Nearly 90 percent were concerned about having fewer days of school instruction.

But here’s the thing: Most California voters don’t want to be taxed by Sacramento. Not even for the kids. Not even with these problems. In the PPIC survey, only 46 percent say they favor raising the state sales tax to support education. Only 40 percent favor raising state personal income taxes. These are dismal numbers. For heaven’s sake, just how bad does it need to get?

Attitudes are very different, however, if it is not Sacramento doing the taxing. Californians aren’t stingy or spiteful; they just want solutions they can believe in. The same annual survey has consistently shown that reliable majorities of voters across the state would be in favor of taxes in support of schools, so long as they are local taxes in support of local schools. This conclusion harmonizes with two other themes in the survey’s findings: Californians (82 percent) want school spending decisions to reside at the local level, and Californians have a higher opinion of their local leaders than they do of their state leaders.

California’s state leaders should take the hint.

There is widespread support for local taxation to benefit local schools with local control. Today, communities cannot exercise that political will, because Prop 13 set the passage threshold for local revenue measures at two-thirds, a threshold higher than a Senate filibuster. If Sacramento lowers the barriers, restoring to local communities the power to tax themselves in support of local schools, California’s local voters will happily take action.

Yes, but… what about equity?

The advantages of local taxation are obvious…  if you happen to live in a wealthy community. On the other hand, if you live in a community with a small tax base, local taxation is not obviously helpful. To be clear: Simply lowering the passage threshold for local taxes could recreate the kinds of structural funding inequities that led to the Serrano vs. Priest case.

Are there ways to unblock local taxation and also preserve equitable access to funding for all communities?

Yes. Here is one: Create a state-level obligation to equitably match qualifying local education taxes. The goal of this approach would be to ensure that every public school has equitable access to local funding, regardless of the tax base in the district it calls home.

Districts would be expected to win the support of their community in the form of local taxes. Districts with a low tax base per student would receive support from the state. Every dollar the community commits to education in the form of local taxes for public schools would be matched with money from the state fund. How much money from the state fund? It would depend on the community’s local funding capacity. Each district’s tax collections for education would be matched at a level sufficient to add up to at least the funding power per student of the average district in the state. Models drafted for the Education Excellence Committee in 2007 estimated that equalizing funding power might require a tenfold match in communities with a very low tax base per student. A district that enjoys a high tax base per student, by contrast, would not need or receive matching funds from the state.

Could it work? Here are some examples of the devilish details.

What form of local taxation ought to be permitted?

The Education Excellence Committee, citing the historical connection between property taxes and schools, suggested using a form of property surtax. The Think Long Committee suggested changing the mix to include taxes on services and other sources.

How should local tax measures for schools be authorized?

Some, citing Proposition 39 as a precedent, believe a local ballot measure would be appropriate or necessary. Others (myself included) believe that this responsibility should be returned to the jurisdiction of school boards.

Where would the money for a state matching fund come from?

It would be dealt from the top of the state general fund. That is, payment of matching fund obligations would become the state’s first order-of-payment responsibility after meeting its debt obligations.

Should there be a limit on the amount that a community would be permitted to raise through local taxes for its schools?

Yes. It is important to establish a limit in order to avoid unintentionally creating open-ended obligations for matching funds. Such a limit could usefully be expressed in terms that help build the public’s understanding of their investment in education. For example, the limit could be set to an amount equal to 10 percent of the community’s average weighted funding per student in the prior year. As confidence in the system develops, the limit could be adjusted.

If local funding for schools is eased, should state strings be attached?

Yes, with restraint. For example, the state could insist that local taxes for education be equitably used for the support of all public school students in a community on a weighted-pupil basis. Local funds also should not be allowed to become a football in the conflict over charter school funding. Transparency requirements would also make sense.

Could this actually be done? Is it politically feasible? What about Proposition 13?

No one knows, because it has not been tried or deeply examined. But look at the PPIC poll numbers above: Californians do not appear to want state solutions, but they agree about the problem and express confidence in local action and local leadership.

Why bring this up now? Shouldn’t we be focused on passing the revenue-related ballot measures that would support education?

Funding for education in California is pitifully out of whack with the rest of the nation. If California’s voters can muster statewide political will to equitably add school funding through Sacramento, let’s do it. But the survey doesn’t look good, does it? The next serious evaluation of education finance reform options should take a hard look at making local funding options a serious part of the solution.

Jeff Camp is the primary author of, a primer on education reform options in California. Since leaving a career at Microsoft to work for education change, Jeff has served on multiple education reform committees including the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence. He chairs the Education Circle of Full Circle Fund, an engaged philanthropy organization cultivating the next generation of community leaders and driving lasting social change in the Bay Area and beyond. A visual summary of Ed100 can be found here.