More gain, no pain NCLB waiver

Gov. Jerry Brown described his relationship with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as a “work in progress” after a face-to-face meeting last week in Washington. Californians will soon find out how much progress if the State Board of Education next week approves a very different request for a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law than the one Duncan will be expecting.

Again assuming the role of the nonconformist state, California would ask Duncan for immediate relief from NCLB’s spending constraints and penalties without having to jump through the hoops that Duncan is demanding of other states. One of those is the adoption of a teacher and administrator evaluation system that would include student test scores  as a factor – a requirement that the California Teachers Association staunchly opposes.

“California state law and our current fiscal condition make it virtually impossible to implement all of the waiver requirements in every district and school in the state,” says a draft letter to U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of Education Michael Yudin that would be signed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Board President Michael Kirst if the State Board approves. Unlike other states that have applied for a waiver, California would not try to negotiate a better deal. The state would argue that the waiver is warranted in its own right; districts want it, and student achievement would ultimately rise if California could be out from under much of NCLB.

The federal Department of Education thus far has granted waivers to 11 states; the next deadline, to which several dozen states may apply, is this week. A final deadline is Sept. 1, but it would be too late for a waiver for the 2012-13 school year. California would ask for an immediate two-year waiver.

Torlakson, who has called Duncan’s waiver requirements an overreaching swap of one set of burdens for another, is pushing the “state-devised” waiver idea. State Board Executive Director Sue Burr has followed its development and presumably informed Brown, another sharp critic of NCLB, the Race to the Top competition, and other Obama administration education reforms.

Brown probably has a better chance of trouncing Duncan one on one in basketball than California has in getting the waiver approved. But California would be making a point with its request: The waiver that the state is seeking is justifiable and permissible; it’s Duncan who is stretching his authority by demanding concessions for a waiver beyond what’s contained in NCLB.

California is not asking for all of the benefits from a waiver that Duncan is offering but it is seeking the primary ones: flexibility to use $353 million in Title I money now restricted to tutoring and transporting students to their districts of choice, and release from having to identify and prescribe turnaround programs for schools identified as failing under NCLB. In testimony before the State Board, superintendents have cited these benefits in calling for the state to pursue Duncan’s waiver option. Districts with Title I schools – about 60 percent of the state’s 10,000 schools – would still have to spend the money on low-income students, but could use it, say, for preparing teachers for Common Core standards or for their own school improvement plans outside of NCLB’s limited models.

In return, Duncan is requiring that states commit to:

  • Adopt and implement college- and career-ready standards. California has partly met this by adopting the Common Core standards, but the state Department of Education estimates that the state and districts would have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars over the next two years in training teachers and purchasing textbooks – money the state doesn’t have or, in the case of instructional materials, lacks the current authority to approve. Other states have negotiated the deadline.
  • Create a new school accountability system that identifies 15 percent of schools with the largest achievement gaps or the worst performance and create improvement plans for them. High-performing schools would be rewarded. State officials assert that Duncan is requiring adoption of a new state assessment system that tracks student growth from year to year, even though Common Core assessments would replace them in two years.
  • Pass a new evaluation system for teachers and administrators while providing value-added student test scores to math and English language arts teachers. State education officials point out that the state cannot promise that the Legislature will revise the current Stull Act and, if it did, that unions and school boards in the every school district would negotiate the adoption next year.

Paul Hefner, spokesman for Torlakson, said the Superintendent considers the state’s proposed waiver “a third way” – a reasonable solution to districts’ need for flexibility and consistent with the “spirit of the law’s waiver authority.”

LAO wants to redirect QEIA funds

Nearly 30 percent of California schools funded under the Quality Education Investment Act, or QEIA, may be expelled from the program at the end of this academic year for not meeting one or more of the requirements. That could leave up to $140 million in QEIA funds on the table – money the Legislative Analyst says the state should use to fill in the gaps in other educational programs.

There’s one barrier to the proposal: the QEIA law forbids it. SB 1133, introduced in 2006 by former state senator and current State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, requires that any funds left over when schools are removed from the program stay in the program. The money would be divided among the remaining schools for cost-of-living and enrollment increases.

Gov. Brown's plan to pay off QEIA and other temporary programs. (Source: LAO). Click to enlarge.
Gov. Brown's plan to pay off QEIA and other temporary programs. (Source: LAO). Click to enlarge.

The LAO acknowledges as much in its just released analysis of Gov. Brown’s 2012-13 education budget plan. The report recommends a statutory change to free up the money. It faces formidable opposition, and not just from Superintendent Torlakson, but possibly from higher up. Unlike much of the LAO’s report, which analyzes the governor’s budget proposals, this idea came directly from the legislative analyst.

“That is our recommendation,” said Edgar Cabral, one of the LAO’s education analysts. “The governor did not make that recommendation, and I doubt he would.”

State Board of Education president Michael Kirst said in an email that he wouldn’t support the plan either, and suggested that any changes “might also have to go back to the court as well as the Legislature.”

Stepping back

QEIA grew out of a lawsuit filed by the California Teachers Association against Gov. Schwarzenegger for reneging on a promise to repay school districts and community colleges $2 billion taken from Proposition 98 in 2004-05 in order to help get the state through a budget crisis. When state revenues increased that year, schools should have received an additional $1.8 billion under the Prop 98 guarantee. Instead, the governor based the 2005-06 school funding guarantee on the lower amount from the previous year.

QEIA funding by grade. (Source: County Supes Association-CCSESA). Click to enlarge.
QEIA funding by grade. (Source: County Supes Association-CCSESA). Click to enlarge.

Under the settlement, schools in API deciles 1 and 2 were eligible to apply for QEIA funds, but there was only enough money for about 500 of the nearly 1,500 schools in the lowest rankings. The numbers have fluctuated some since the program began in 2007-08, and there are now 474 schools – and that number is falling – in the program.

The latest reporting from County Offices of Education to the State Department of Education (as yet unpublished) shows that 137 QEIA schools haven’t met at least one requirement of the program. They include:

  • Class size reduction: A maximum of 20 students in grades K to 3 and 25 students in grades 4 through 12,
  • School counselors: Must have a student-counselor ratio of no more than 300:1,
  • Highly qualified teachers: All teachers must meet the standards for highly qualified teachers in No Child Left Behind,
  • Professional development: Develop a coherent plan for professional development and track participation by teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals,
  • Teacher experience index (TEI): Teachers at QEIA schools must have an average level of teaching experience at or above the average of the entire school district for the same type of school, and
  • API: The average API growth scores from 2008-09, 2009-10, and 2010-11 must exceed the school’s average API target for those same three years.

By law, these schools could be terminated from the program beginning next fall, but the State Board of Education has begun granting waivers from a few of the provisions. As of its meeting last month, the Board has approved 45 waiver requests and denied five from the class size reduction requirement, and approved three waivers from the teacher experience index and four under highly qualified teachers.

Board members drew the line, however, at waivers for not meeting API targets.  “This is the main goal of QEIA; I really have difficulty saying we can waive student achievement,” said board member Yvonne Chan at last month’s meeting, before a unanimous vote to deny five waiver requests for academic performance.  At last count, 70 QEIA schools have fallen short of their API targets.

The California Teachers Association, which led the charge for QEIA through its lawsuit, notes that even if every school that hasn’t met all the requirements is booted from the program, the overwhelming number of schools will remain.  Considering that California schools have absorbed about $20 billion in cuts in the past few year, “it’s very promising that so many QEIA school weathered that storm and are making progress,” said CTA spokesman Mike Myslinski.

That’s why the CTA will oppose any effort to take money that would otherwise provide those QEIA survivors with a little extra funding, said Myslinksi.   “For us, the law is very clear that any so-called excess money really needs to go back to the schools.”

How weighted funding would work

Districts in which nearly 90 percent of students are either low-income or English learners (such as Long Beach Unified and Los Angeles Unified) will get $3,000 more per student than districts where only 20 percent of students are disadvantaged (like Poway and Irvine) – once the new system of school funding that Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing is fully phased in.

A district with 90 percent disadvantaged students would get $9,596 per student, compared with $6,444 for a district with only a 20 percent combination of English learners and low-income children. The formula assumes base funding of $6,000.

Brown’s weighted pupil funding system would be a radical departure from the current system, in which districts’ revenues differ sharply and often irrationally, based on allocations of dozens of specially designated “categorical” programs, often using unfair or outdated formulas. Brown would end all but a handful of categoricals – special education funding the biggest exception – and reallocate the money based on districts’ concentrations of the disadvantaged.

Brown’s proposal closely matches methodology developed four years ago in a brief (definitely worth reading) co-authored by State Board President Michael Kirst with then law professor and now state Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu and former state Secretary of Education Alan Bersin. The primary difference is that their formula also factored in regional costs of living, while Brown, in an effort to make it simpler, does not.

“We propose a new system that is more rational, more equitable, and, we believe, politically feasible,” the authors said in their introduction. Their method certainly is the former; it’s too early to say whether legislators, once they do district-by-district calculations, will adopt it. However, the intent, by phasing it in over five years, is to ensure that districts won’t get any less money than they receive now.

The formula, as provided by the state Department of Finance, would work this way: **

The state would calculate the total unduplicated number of low-income students, English learners, and students who are are both (more than 80 percent of English learners are also poor) for each district. “Low income” would be defined as eligible for the federal free and reduced price lunch program – more than half of the state’s students.

The formula adds a straight 37 percent of the base grant for districts in which the total number of disadvantaged students is under 50 percent.

Example: A district with 20 percent disadvantaged students would receive 20% times 37% times $6,000, or $444 (7.4 percent) above the $6,000 base rate. For districts with 40 percent disadvantaged students, the amount would be $888.

Districts where more than half of students are disadvantaged would get proportionally more money – an increase of 7.4 percentage points for every 10 percent above 50 percent.

The rationale is that concentrations of disadvantaged students create extra learning challenges. Citing studies, the Kirst-Bersin-Liu brief notes, “Importantly, students in high-poverty schools face a double disadvantage arising not only from their own poverty but also from the poverty of their peers.”

In districts with 60 percent disadvantaged, the premium increases 7.4 percentage ponts to 44.4 percent, resulting in $1,598 per student above the $6,000 base rate.

At 80 percent concentration, the premium rises to 59.2 percent times .80 for an additional $2,842 per student.

At 90 percent, it’s 66 percent times .90 for $3,596.

Base funding is defined in the brief as covering the basic costs of education (“textbooks, safe and clean facilities and qualified teachers and other personnel”). However, K-12 funding has been cut substantially since 2008, when the brief was written. Nick Schweizer, the state Department of Finance’s budget manager for education, cautioned in an email that the base amount may have to be scaled back.

Money wouldn’t follow the child

Other key factors:

  • The formula does not differentiate between elementary, unified districts, and higher-cost high school districts as the current system does. That will likely be one point of contention.
  • For now, at least, per-student funding will be allocated to districts and not to school sites, as some advocates of weighted funding argue should be the case. School site funding has been tried in Oakland and is being piloted in Los Angeles Unified and Twin Rivers Unified under the project Strategic School Funding for Results. It ensures that extra funding gets to low-income schools. But districtwide, weighted student funding can be  harder to administer and can put the squeeze on schools with high concentrations of higher paid, veteran teachers.

“What we are proposing is not overly complex and is doable,” Kirst said in an interview. “It’s a better system than what we have.”

  • Along with special education, the only categoricals that will be excluded from the formula will be federally funded school nutrition; after-school programs, because voters would have to change funding for them under Propostion 49; preschool funding; and money for the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA), because it stems from a legal settlement with the California Teachers Assn.
  • Districts would have complete flexibility over how the extra money for poor kids and English learners would be spent. They could create financial incentives to attract the best teachers to come to low-performing schools, hire aides, lower class sizes, extend the school day, or focus on staff training. Or they could splurge on football uniforms or spread dollars evenly on needy and non-poor students.

In the mid-’90s, with a spurt in state revenues, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson created the class-size reduction program as a new categorical to prevent the extra money from ending up as pay raises for teachers and administrators.

Kirst-Bersin-Liu argue that preceded the adoption of state curriculum standards and assessments. If districts are going to be held accountable for results, then districts should have autonomy and flexibility to determine how best to achieve them.

Brown calls for the adoption of new, unspecified local accountability measures that would give parents and community members more access to information. The assumption is that they would become a countervailing force to ensure that money is spent wisely.

Advocates for low-income students and English learners will nonetheless argue that there needs to be more assurance – and tighter rules – to ensure that money for disadvantaged students actually will be spent on them.

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** Here is the detailed formula, as provided by the Department of Finance, for those mathematically inclined:
For districts with equal to or less than 50% of students Free and Reduced Price Lunch (FRPL) eligible or English learners (ELs):
• Base grant (BG) + BG * 0.37 * % FRPL or EL
The FRPL and EL counts are unduplicated, so that a district with 20% FRPL only, 10% EL only, and 5% both FRPL and EL would have a % FRPL or EL = 35% (the 5% both FRPL and EL would not be counted twice in the formula).
• So, with BG = $6k and a district with % FRPL or EL = 40%, the formula would provide: 6,000 + 6,000 * 0.37 * 0.4 = $6,888 per pupil.
For districts with greater than 50% of students FRPL eligible or ELs:
• BG + BG * 2 * 0.37 * (% FRPL or EL)2
• For a district with % FRPL or EL = 60%, the formula would provide: 6,000 + 6,000 * 2 * 0.37 * 0.6 * 0.6 = $7,598 per pupil.
• For a district with % FRPL or EL = 80%, the formula would provide: 6,000 + 6,000 * 2 * 0.37 * 0.8 * 0.8 = $8,842 per pupil.
Or putting it in another way that maybe is a little more intuitive:
• BG + BG * 0.37 * % FRPL or EL + BG * 2 * 0.37 * % FRPL or EL * the % FRPL or EL above 50% (or, said another way, % FRPL or EL – 0.5) or 0 if the % FRPL or EL is < 50%.
• For a district with % FRPL or EL = 40%, this representation of the formula would provide: 6,000 + 6,000 * 0.37 * 0.4 + 6,000 * 2 * 0.37 * 0.4 * 0 = $6,888 per pupil.
• For a district with % FRPL or EL = 60%, the formula would provide: 6,000 + 6,000 * 0.37 * 0.6 + 6,000 * 2 * 0.37 * 0.6 * (0.6 – 0.5) = $7,598 per pupil.
• For a district with % FRPL or EL = 80%, the formula would provide: 6,000 + 6,000 * 0.37 * 0.8 + 6,000 * 2 * 0.37 * 0.8 * (0.8 – 0.5) = $8,842 per pupil
A more narrative description of the formula:  It adds an amount equal to 37% of the base grant for each FRPL or EL student until you reach the 50% threshold. Then an additional 7.4% of the base grant is added per FRPL or EL student, on top of the 37% already added on, for each 10% increment above the 50% threshold. So, at 60%, 7.4% of the base grant is added, which grows to 14.8% of the base grant at 70%, and 22.2% at 80%, and so on.

Kirst, Rucker nominations in flux

Senate Republicans are threatening to hold up or block the nominations of State Board of Education President Michael Kirst and board member Patricia Rucker. They have become bargaining chips for reasons that Republicans have not explained.

Kirst, a Stanford emeritus professor of education who served as State Board President under Gov. Jerry Brown in the ‘70s, and Rucker, a lobbyist with the California Teachers Assn., were among the seven Brown nominees who were endorsed Wednesday by the five-member Senate Rules Committee. But both Republicans on the committee, Sens. Tom Harman and Jean Fuller, abstained from voting on Kirst and Rucker while joining Democrats to unanimously approve the other five nominees: Trish Williams, Carl Cohn, Aida Molina, James Ramos, and Ilene Straus.

The full Senate will vote on the five nominees before the end of the legislative session next week. But the nominations of Kirst and Rucker are up in the air. State Board nominees need a two-thirds majority for confirmation, and Republicans have the numbers to block them. Speaking before the Rules Committee on Wednesday, Sen. Bob Huff, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, indicated that might happen while at the same time expressing hope it could be avoided. He implied that the unstated objections were legislative and policy-based and not related to Kirst’s or Rucker’s qualifications.

While acknowledging members of the Caucus had “a good conversation” with Kirst, Huff said, “we still have questions to be answered” and urged that votes on Kirst and Rucker be delayed until January “without prejudice.” Doing so, however, would be problematic. Brown nominated them to four-year terms in early January, and they can serve no more than a year before they must be confirmed. With the Legislature adjourning next week until January, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said he wanted to bring the nominations before the Senate within days. But Huff said what he wanted might take longer, perhaps including new policies by the State Board.

Open Enrollment at issue

Huff is a big proponent of the state’s 18-month-old Open Enrollment Act, giving students in low-performing schools the right to attend higher achieving schools in other districts, and he is apparently upset by what he considers efforts of the Legislature and the State Board  to weaken the law. Two Senate aides in the know I spoke with surmised he was using the nominations to get Brown’s attention on the issue.

The Open Enrollment Act was sponsored by former Democratic Sen. Gloria Romero to strengthen the state’s application to Race to the Top. As with its policy cousin, the Parent Trigger, there are problems with the law’s drafting. It was designed to liberate students in  the lowest performing 1,000 schools – about the lowest 10 percent. But some schools with relatively high API scores – even above 800 – have been on the list due to problems with the formula. They have to notify parents that, in effect, their children are attending failing schools. ***

As a result, 96 schools that feel they shouldn’t be included have appealed to the State Board, and all have gotten waivers, according to an analysis of AB 47, another cause of Huff’s displeasure. Sponsored by Jared Huffman, a Democrat from Marin County, the bill would exclude schools with at least a 700 API or those that have increased API scores by at least 50 points in the prior year and would add in about 100 of the lowest performing charter schools. The 1,000 schools would not be a hard number but a ceiling, with a lower number on the list possible. AB47 now awaits a final vote in the Senate,

Huff and Republicans may view the nominations as leverage with Brown on a bunch of issues, but my guess is that Open Enrollment is high up there.

As an employee of the CTA, which is allied closely with Democrats and was Brown’s biggest financial backer, Rucker would seem a likely target of Republicans. But there has traditionally been a seat on the 11-member board for a CTA member, and Rucker, an attorney, would not be the first CTA lobbyist to serve on it. She made that point to Harman in response to a question about potential conflicts of interest. “I have demonstrated that I can separate my obligation to the education community at large and my obligation to the CTA,” she said. Fuller and Harman gave no indication that they objected to her personally. Rucker gave clear, cogent answers during two hours of questioning of all seven candidates’ broad views on ed reform at the hearing.

The nomination of Kirst, Brown’s education adviser during the gubernatorial campaign and a pragmatist and a moderate on education reform, has received near-universal praise. His primary interests – improving classroom instruction, preparing the state for the implementation of Common Core standards, and better aligning K-12 expectations with college and career goals – match Brown’s. Kirst showed his skills and even temperament in crafting Parent Trigger regulations that satisfied  antagonists on the issue.

During testimony, education advocates spoke on behalf of various nominees. But Sherry Griffith, legislative advocate for  the Association of California School Administrators, spoke on behalf of many when she praised all seven of Brown’s nominees. Calling them “phenomenal,” with 200 years of experience in education among them, she said, “This is the strongest set of board members in 15 years.”

*** Whether their children could then find a school in a nearby district willing to accept them is a different issue. The law allows districts, especially wealthy districts, to opt out easily, by citing financial hardship if they had to admit more students.  Districts with declining enrollments would be most likely to declare themselves receiver districts. Because the law is new, it’s too soon for data on how the Open Enrollment Act is working.

Kirst: reread Jerry Brown’s plan

Michael Kirst, who co-authored Gov.-elect Jerry Brown’s education plan, had this reaction on reading the two dozen commentators’ worth of advice that ran on this page over two days last week (here and here): Go back and reread Brown’s plan.

 

“At least in the short run, rather than bring up whole new issues he has not committed to, it would be most useful to those working with him (Brown) if the comments addressed the plan specifically – what people like and don’t like,” Kirst told me over the weekend. (To keep the conversation going, I encourage readers and commentators to do just that and send in your reactions. Again, here’s the plan .)

Kirst, a professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford, was Brown’s principal adviser on education and sole campaign spokesman on that issue. He had a hand in writing the 12-point education plan, although, he said, Brown rewrote sections and approved every word of it. And, he said, Brown is serious about implementing it.

Brown’s plan includes some of the key issues that experts and advocates raised in their advice: a return to local control and the simplification of the state Ed Code, the need for new assessments beyond the current California Standardized Tests, and a focus on teacher and principal training and development. It commits to implementing a weighted student funding formula, based on student needs, as a replacement for dozens of categorical programs, though not in the context of overall governance and financing reform. And the plan does not directly address the massive funding cuts that K-12 schools and higher ed institutions may continue to experience.

The plan was written before Gov. Schwarzenegger deleted money from the budget for CALPADS, the statewide student data system that’s a year behind schedule; the plan doesn’t focus on student data. It also does not include a section on preschool, which Kirst said that Brown would address.

Kirst served on the State School Board for seven years, including four as president when Brown was governor. He told me that he is interested in serving once again for Brown, although he’s not certain in what capacity.

Apparently, it won’t be as Brown’s secretary of education; the governor doesn’t plan to appoint one. Kirst referred me to a section of Brown’s campaign web site that said: “Currently, education policy making at the state level is divided among the State Board of Education, the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Governor’s Secretary of Education. As Governor, I eliminated some of this overlap by not appointing a secretary of education and looking to the State Board for educational policy advice. Given education’s fundamental importance, I intend to play a major role in education policy. But I would work with and use the existing staff of the State Superintendent or state board, as opposed to having my own separate educational staff.”

The current president of the State Board, Ted Mitchell, is a Democrat whom Schwarzenegger appointed. A one-year extension of his term ends in January.