Student scores in evaluations

In a decision with statewide implications, a Superior Court judge ruled that Los Angeles Unified must include measures of student progress, including scores on state standardized tests, when evaluating teachers and principals.

But Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge James Chalfant will leave it to the district, in negotiations with its teachers union and administrators union, to determine what other measures of student performance might also be included, how much weight to give them in an evaluation, and how exactly test scores and other measures should be used.

Chalfant’s decision would appear to strengthen Superintendent John Deasy’s push to move forward with a complex value-added system of measuring individual students’ progress on state standardized tests, called Academic Growth over Time. Deasy wants to introduce AGT on a test basis in a pilot evaluation program next year. But the unions remain adamantly opposed to AGT; Chalfant said the use of AGT as a measure of student progress is not his call to make; and today, hours before Chalfant is to meet again with parties in the lawsuit over evaluations, Los Angeles Unified school board member Steve Zimmer will propose barring AGT from staff evaluations. The school board will vote on his motion later this month.

Chalfant released his tentative decision on Monday. (Update: On Tuesday, after a hearing with all parties, he made the ruling final.) But the carefully crafted, 25-page ruling is not likely to change much, if at all, and may become final today, after the school district and unions get a final chance to make their case at a hearing.

The ruling is a victory for Sacramento-based EdVoice, which filed suit on behalf of a half-dozen unnamed Los Angeles Unified students and their parents and guardians. EdVoice’s lawsuit claimed that the Stull Act, the 40-year-old state law laying out procedures for teacher and administrator evaluations, requires school districts to factor in student progress on district standards, however they decide to measure it, as well as scores on the California Standards Tests (CST) in evaluations and that Los Angeles Unified was ignoring the requirement – as do most school districts.

Chalfant agreed and, in his decision, quoted Deasy, who, in testimony, acknowledged the district doesn’t look at how students do academically when evaluating teachers.  On Monday, Deasy praised the tentative decision, and called for  the district, his employer, to move quickly to act on it. “The district has waited far too long to comply with the law,” Deasy said. “This is why LAUSD has created its own evaluation system, and has begun to use it. The system was developed with the input of teachers and administrators.”

Next step: negotiating compliance

Chalfant’s tentative ruling proposed that attorneys for EdVoice and the parents propose a plan for compliance and that they and the district try to negotiate specifics over the next month. Whatever they agree to would still likely have to be negotiated with United Teachers Los Angeles and Associated Administrators Los Angeles.

Bill Lucia, president and CEO of EdVoice, praised Chalfant’s decision. While acknowledging that the emphasis given to student progress could become a sticking point in negotiations between the district and teachers, he said the ruling makes clear “there is no status quo going forward.”

“It won’t be OK to sit on their hands,” Lucia said. “The district must come up with something different that passes the laugh test and makes a sincere effort to honor the statute requiring that evaluations look at whether kids are learning.”

EdVoice took no position on whether the AGT should be the tool by which to measure student performance in Los Angeles. But, Lucia said, the district must consider other measures ­– whether student portfolios or other district tests ­ – in the evaluations of teachers of courses in which CSTs aren’t given, such as first grade, art and seventh grade science.

Signal to other districts

Chalfant’s ruling would apply only to Los Angeles Unified, although other Superior Courts could cite the ruling. Nonetheless, Lucia said that the message to other districts is that “a district cannot omit the progress of kids in job performance of adults.” The goal, he said, “should be a better determination of effectiveness that allows limited resources to be targeted to those teachers needing the most improvement.”

Attorneys for UTLA and the district could not be reached for comment on Monday.

UTLA argued in its brief that a dispute over requirements in the Stull Act belonged before the Public Employee Relations Board, not a court, and that any requirement for the use of test scores or other measures must be negotiated.  But Chalfant wrote that first and foremost, the district must comply with state law, regardless of the contract it reached with the unions.

The position of the district, on behalf of the school board, was confusing. Last year, in defending the  pilot program using AGT, the district  said it had the authority to impose the terms of evaluations without union negotiations. Even though Deasy testified that test scores and student progress weren’t part of staff evaluations, the district fought the EdVoice lawsuit.

In its brief, the district asserted that the use of AGT in the pilot satisfied the law’s requirement to use state standardized test scores – even though they have yet to be applied, with consequences, to any teacher. The district also asserted that it uses results on district and state tests and other student measures to set goals for teacher instruction and measure improvements in the classroom.

But Chalfant ruled that that’s not sufficient. “There must be a nexus between pupil progress and the evaluations. No such nexus currently exists.”

“This does not mean that there must be a box on a form which directly addresses pupil progress,” he wrote. “It does mean that pupil progress must be reflected in some factor on a written teacher evaluation.”

Whether pupil progress – AGT alone or in combination with other student growth measures ­ – counts 20 percent or 30 percent of an evaluation, as Deasy has advocated, must be decided through negotiations, unless the district asserts a right to impose AGT unilaterally.

Villaraigosa’s Stull Act amendment

In 1999, when he was state Assembly speaker, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sponsored an amendment updating the Stull Act  to require the use of CST scores in teacher evaluations. Villaraigosa submitted a brief supporting this position.

Chalfant incorporated some of Villaraigosa’s points in explaining the rationale for his decision. In 2009-10, 99.3 percent of teachers evaluated received the highest evaluation rating, with 79 percent meeting all 27 measures of performance. This despite that the district “has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the State, and an even lower percentage of students are college ready.”

“These failures cannot be laid solely at the feet of the District’s teachers,” Chalfant cointinued. “Students must want to learn in order to do so, and some students can never be motivated to learn. But the District has an obligation to look at any and all means available to help improve the dismal results of its student population. One means of improving student education is to evaluate teachers and administrators based on the overall progress of their students.”

Easing the burden of deferrals

A bill working its way through the state Senate would require the state to share the financial burden it causes the next time it delays money due K-12 districts. Only a portion of the short-term interest charges that many districts face when forced to take out short-term loans would be reimbursed. But SB 1491 at least would recognize that billions of dollars in late payments can create an expensive cash crisis for districts, many of them in low-income areas.

Within the past decade the state has used late payments, called deferrals, to help balance the budget. At this point, $10.4 billion – about 30 percent of state money owed to K-12 and community colleges – is budgeted in one fiscal year, but paid in the next year. Districts that cannot borrow internally, from their own accounts, have turned to county offices of education if available or to the open market, at interest rates from a few percentage points up to double-digit rates for some charter schools.

Gov. Jerry Brown has made eliminating the state’s “wall of debt,” which includes deferrals, a priority for his proposed $9 billion tax increase, starting with repaying $1.8 billion this year. But if voters reject higher taxes, the state will face another year of big deficits, and another deferral to districts and community colleges would be an alternative to another outright cut.

The pain of deferrals has not been spread equally, which has been a major source of contention by those who bear the bigger share. School districts’ basic funding under Proposition 98 consists of  local property taxes and state revenue, with the state filling in whatever amount the property tax can’t meet. Deferrals affect only the state revenue portion, so districts with a low tax base and a high share of state revenue have been disproportionately hit by deferrals. Stephen Rhoads, a consultant who has done work on the issue for the sponsor, Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod, has calculated, for example, that Fresno Unified currently has $2,005 per student in state aid deferred, while Huntington Union High School District in Orange County has only $526 per student deferred.

Because of these disparities, Negrete McLeod proposed spreading the per-student cost of future deferrals equally among all districts, regardless of whether they’re property poor or rich, and having the state reimburse the full borrowing costs that they incur.

Endorsing this concept, Bill Lucia, CEO of the nonprofit EdVoice, said deferrals have forced some districts to lay off teachers and cut programs. The inequitable distribution threatens to violate the Serrano case, in which the state Supreme Court demanded that the state fix inequities in school funding.

Negrete McLeod’s bill initially suggested giving further breaks to districts with high rates of poor children. But staff of the Senate Education Committee found the deferral redistribution formula too complex and possibly unconstitutional, and recommended a simpler method with less cost to the state, which the Committee approved and Negrete McLeod accepted.

Districts will be entitled to reimbursement at the interest rate that the state receives while pooling its revenue while waiting to fund various state budget accounts. That percentage is currently about 1 percent – far less than many districts are paying for short-term notes, but better than nothing.

At a hearing last week on the bill, Lucia and Liz Guillen, an attorney with the nonprofit advocacy law firm Public Advocates, criticized this solution as not going far enough to address deferral inequities.

But Negrete McLeod said she’d take what she could get. “Despite my desire to equalize the inequality of the current deferral funding system, I was willing to limit the scope of the bill,” she said in an email.  “Deferrals are a contentious issue and moving a bill that saves school districts millions of dollars in interest charges is a step in the right direction.”

It’s unclear how much districts will save or how the reimbursements would work. Details will be worked out as the bill goes through the Legislature, said Daniel Alvarez, staff director for the Senate Education Committee.

Big (invisible) K-12 spending boost

Gov. Jerry Brown gave K-12 school districts significantly more money, tempered by conflicting messages and sober warnings in the revised budget he presented on Monday. Reflecting higher state revenues and an acknowledgment that schools and community colleges have been socked disproportionately in recent years, the extra dollars for 2011-12 would raise base level funding under Proposition 98 $3 billion above the $49.4 billion that Brown proposed five months ago. That’s about half of the $6.6 billion in new money that the state now expects (see budget summary for education).

For most parents and teachers, the extra dollars will be all but invisible. Most districts won’t be rehiring staff or restoring programs from a few years ago; additional per-student aid will rise but a blip. Brown is proposing that nearly all of the money be used to eliminate $2 billion in late payments, known as deferrals, that he had proposed in January, and to pay down $400 million in previous K-12 deferrals, along with $350 million in community college deferrals. That will help districts’ balance sheets, but not the classroom, at least not directly. Funding overall would remain flat.

Brown’s May budget also continues to assume  that the Legislature will put on the ballot – and voters will soon approve – a five-year extension of the temporary increase in the sales tax, the vehicle license fee, and the personal income tax. (The .25 percent income tax increase would be suspended this year but resume in 2012-13.) Tax extensions are critical to closing a budget shortfall that, even with higher revenues, remains at about $10 billion, Brown said.

Though pressed by reporters, Brown and his finance director, Ana Matosantos, were vague – perhaps intentionally so since they are continuing to negotiate with Republicans on timing, length, and details of the taxes – in explaining how districts should go about building next year’s budgets now without knowing for sure there will be more revenue. He said he understood the school districts’ dilemma and indicated that there would have to be a transition in the event that the taxes were approved temporarily by the Legislature (four Republicans willing), then defeated by voters. But he did not elaborate. Even with taxes extended, spending for K-12 and community colleges next year would be $4 billion below the 2007-08 high water mark.

Even with tax extensions, state revenue as a percentage of personal income would fall to the 1972-73 levels (May Revision budget). Click to enlarge.
Even with tax extensions, state revenue as a percentage of personal income would fall to the 1972-73 levels (May Revision budget). Click to enlarge.

The Education Coalition – the California Teachers Association, the state PTA, and the California School Boards Association (CSBA) – all separately praised Brown’s “balanced” approach to the budget. But consultants paid by districts to look into details were giving conflicting advice Monday. School Services of California Inc. was recommending to assume for the best: “Under the current circumstances, we advise following the Governor’s stridently delivered advice; if he is unable to deliver on his plan, the consequences will be laid at the Governor’s door.” But Bob Blattner of Bob Blattner & Associates was urging caution: “The Governor is essentially asking school leaders to jump out of an airplane, trusting that the backpack they are wearing contains a parachute.” Blattner was recommending that districts assume there may be as much as a $675 per student cut in state tuition, and then look for assurances from Sacramento that even if the tax extensions fail, there would be ways to soften the impact – like reinstating the deferrals.

School districts handed out layoff notices to 20,000 teachers statewide. They became final on Sunday. If Brown’s May revise is adopted and taxes are extended, most of the teachers could be recalled. But districts worried that voters would say no to taxes would be wary of adding to their payrolls.

Deferrals and adult supervision

Deferrals have grown dangerously large, to nearly $10 billion, putting dozens of districts in financial danger. As Bob Wells, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators, told us, the first deferral, moving payments back a day, from June 30 to the new fiscal year on July 1, seemed innocuous. But it quickly became a slippery slope, Wells said, with billions of dollars now deferred for 8 to 10 months.

“I think for any family, if you looked at your June budget and said could you hang in there and get your money on July 1, sure; but if you woke up the next day and learned it would be months, then you’d be in trouble,” he said.

Rick Pratt, vice president of CSBA, and Bill Lucia, president and CEO of EdVoice, agreed that erasing some of the deferrals was appropriate. Lucia said that deferring money owed to school districts, forcing them to borrow money, was using education to subsidize other parts of the state budget.

“The governor has now made education a priority, and paying down deferrals is wise for education and wise budgeting,” Lucia said.

Deferrals have had the biggest impact on small school districts and charter schools, which have had to borrow money at much higher rates than large districts, Lucia said. Property-wealthy districts that get a smaller portion of their money from the state for their base revenue were least affected, so reducing deferrals would begin to address that inequity in education funding and will ease cash flow problems, and even prevent some districts from being forced into insolvency, according to Nick Schweizer of the Department of Finance. To the extent that districts have to borrow less, they’ll be able to redirect savings to programs and personnel.

What happened to the all-cuts budget?

I and many others had assumed that Brown would lay out an all-cuts budget in detail – a Plan B – in the event that tax extensions are defeated. In his press conference, he would not be pinned down on the consequences. “I will not give Republicans a road map to ruin; I am giving them a road map to success,” he said.

However, on page 12 of his budget summary, he wrote that community colleges and K-12 schools, comprising 40 percent of the general budget, “would need to bear a heavy share of an ‘all-cuts’ budget.” Proposition 98 would have to be suspended, he said. A cut of $5 billion to Prop 98 is the equivalent of lopping a month off of the school year and laying off 51,000 teachers, eliminating 52,000 courses at community colleges, and raising fees from $36 to $125 per credit.

Brown has said he doesn’t favor using scare tactics to pressure voters to do the right thing. That may be one reason he didn’t lay out Plan B in detail. Another reason is that even an all-cuts budget would require four Republican votes – two in the Assembly and two in the Senate – and last week Republicans vowed not to suspend Prop 98.

Brown said he was optimistic he could turn Republican votes; he said he was talking seriously with between four and 10 of them, without saying who.

One can imagine variables at play in his talks:

  • When to vote: Brown said he’d favor a popular vote as soon as this fall. But that would create problems for school districts; if he could persuade Republicans to extend taxes until a ballot vote next June or in November 2012 (what CTA favors), school districts could budget for a year without cuts.
  • How long to extend taxes: Brown wants to extend taxes for five years. Could he persuade Republicans to agree to two or three?
  • Price of reform: Business groups, including the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, the Bay Area Council, and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, have written Brown calling for a “workout plan” pairing tax increases with structural changes in Sacramento: amending environmental regulations, adopting a spending cap, and scaling  back public pensions. Brown said Monday he too favors annual limits on spending and pension reforms. Can he and Republicans reach a deal that doesn’t alienate Democrats?

Here are some key education numbers:

Proposed 2011-12 Prop 98 guarantee: May revise, $52.4 billion ($38 billion from General Fund); January budget, $49.4 billion. Increase: $3 billion.
2010-11 Prop 98 guarantee, as adopted: $49.7 billion.
2011-12 Prop 98 guarantee without tax extensions: $50.8 billion. Increase over 2010-11: $1.1 billion.
Proposed 2011-12 K-12 per-pupil funding: $7,878; January budget as amended by the Legislature, $7,693. New proposed increase: $185 per student, 2.4 percent.