California Schools: New State, Federal Strategies Flawed, Familiar

Posted on 24 June 2013

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Lisa SchiffBy Lisa Schiff

Almost as much has happened in the two weeks since public schools let out for the summer than in the entire second semester. In the first part of June, a revised version of federal education policy was introduced in the Senate and a California state budget has all but passed that includes dramatic funding changes for our state's schools.

Having a budget on time would usually be news in itself for California, but the signs have clearly been pointing this way over the last month. What is less clear are the implications of the changes that came about in those last weeks of compromise. In the public education world, Governor Brown's initial Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) aimed to transform the allocation of school funding so drastically by consolidating many separate programs and streamlining those financial flows, that there was still much to chew over and understand. In this last period, he and representatives who had pitched slightly different counter proposals came to a mid-point about funding levels and formulas for different categories of students, overviewed in a digestible format by EdSource. The ultimate compromise came at the reduction, but luckily not elimination, of concentration grants for schools and districts with a substantial percentage of high need students--low-income, English Language Learners, and foster kids. Those monies were then used to increase the basic amount every student will receive, regardless of educational need.

Many critical questions remain to be answered about how LCFF will actually be implemented and significant areas have been uncomfortably glossed over. The issue of accountability is one particularly concerning example. In the original version of LCFF, the accountability was somewhat amorphously left up to the "community" to ensure money was being spent where it needed to be spent, with the state Board of Education and the state Department of Education in the background holding the final say. In the final LCFF version, it seems significantly more authority has been reinvested in the state board and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction's office. The revised version of the LCFF text is not yet available, so it's difficult to determine what criteria will actually be used - purportedly standardized test scores are just one of many factors, and state office holders are gambling a lot on the promised quality of the new Common Core standards and associated assessments. Given all of these unknowns, community members will need to double their efforts to make sure that children are getting what they need - not only will we need to make sure that schools and districts are spending and implementing funding in the best interests of our students, we will have to make sure that the state Department of Education is playing its part appropriately. Stay tuned for future School Beat columns that will explore this more fully.

California isn't the only locale undergoing transformation; much is changing on the national scene as well. Well into President Obama's second term the other shoe has finally dropped with legislation recently introduced to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and replace the justly vilified No Child Left Behind (NCLB) version that we have been painfully living with for over a decade. On June 4th, Senate Education Committee Chair Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, introduced the Strengthening America's Schools Act of 2013 (SASA). At almost 1200 pages of text, SASA will provide a summer's worth of careful reading, but a pass through the first 100 plus pages reveals it to be a close cousin of its predecessor, making some improvements, but in spirit continuing on and in some cases exacerbating some of NLCB's worst qualities.

The Strengthening American Schools Act: meet the new policy, same as the old policy? Photo credit: Kate Ter HaarLike NCLB, SASA's core centers on standardized testing with some predictably related results. For instance, in addition to the required evaluation of language arts and math mastery, science and "other subjects" may be included in accountability efforts, but they are optional. While the expansion of standardized testing is nothing to wish for, the logical outcome of this element of SASA is the continued narrow focus of educational energies on reading/language arts and math to the detriment of our children's broader education.

Although the simplistic snapshot measures of NCLB have been replaced by a focus on identifying student growth over time, the end result may not be that much different. Multiple measures of achievement are allowed to be used in complementary fashion with standardized tests, but the investment and promotion of Common Core standards and the related assessments produced for them all but ensure that these methods will be driving the evaluation of our children. Those evaluations will be in turn rolled up into an easily understood summary - this time not a single statement of a school or district's performance, but in a report card offering a relatively multi-dimensional picture of a school, including aspects such as levels of funding from various sources, availability of programs, etc.

This type of report is in great part available now, so it's not clear how this new formatting will change much, but at the very least it's an acknowledgement that resources across schools within a given district are uneven. What is less clear is how this legislation does anything to change that, since, at least within the first several hundred pages, there is no bold statement about a commitment to fully fund the costs associated with addressing the inequities or gaps such report cards would surface.

It's easy to feel immediately cynical about SASA, especially since groups like FairTest have already identified just how much of the high-stakes testing addiction is carried forward in this bill. At the end of the day, that cynicism is likely to be justified, but the picture is more complicated than that, as indicated by the somewhat surprising endorsement of The Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights and the NEA and AFT's welcoming of movement on reauthorization efforts, if not the actual legislation itself.

Things have come to a sorry state when we are happy just with change even if that change falls so drastically short of what we know our children deserve. To that end a new effort has come to light proposing an alternative to NCLB/SASA. The Education Opportunity Network has announced an "Education Declaration to Rebuild America" that has collected such notable signatories as Linda Darling-Hammond and Diane Ravitch. This "Declaration" is going in the right direction, but it too is lacking. Nowhere, for instance, is there a mention of the significant cultural divides between teachers, students and parents that must be bridged for our educational system to have any hope of being effective for all children. So It seems, then, that for public education activists not much rest is in store this summer, but that we will instead be spending these next few months in concentrated preparation for the changing financial and policy world that will greet us this fall when school doors open once more.

Lisa Schiff is an education activist, the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District, and a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco. This article originally appeared at BeyondChron.