The Four-Flushers in the Governor's Office: Caught Again


Posted on 12 March 2010

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By Peter Schrag

The Schwarzenegger Administration hit the Trifecta this month, three loud raspberries from the feds for its shabby funding of California schools and the inadequate resources it provides, particularly for the education of poor and minority children. As usual, the real losers are the kids.

The first embarrassment, by now old news, was the state’s failure to make even the first cut in the initial round of competition for federal Race to the Top (RTTT) funding.  

The second was a letter from the Department of Education questioning what, at bottom, is an administration shell game purporting to show that despite its sharp cuts in school funding, it was conforming to federal “maintenance of effort” requirements. Those requirements were imposed to make certain that states, in their attempts to get additional federal stimulus money, weren’t just using it to replace their own funds.

The third was the announcement last week that the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Education was launching a major investigation of the Los Angeles Unified School District to determine whether it was providing adequate resources in educating the large number of English learners in the system.

A few days earlier, the ACLU, Public Counsel of Los Angeles and others also filed suit against the Los Angeles district charging that students in three of its worst-performing middle schools were deprived of their constitutional right to an adequate education.  

The complaint charges, among other things, that after the district, in an effort to upgrade its dismally low performing schools,  had recruited able younger teachers eager to work in inner city classrooms, it laid them all off in recent rounds of budget cuts in the familiar pattern in which the last hired are the first fired. .

They were replaced either with teachers who had seniority but no interest in teaching in difficult schools or with strings of substitutes. The result has been endemic chaos, according to the complaint, that destroyed most chances for learning. You can blame some of that on union contracts with their seniority clauses. But some belongs to long-standing bureaucratic inflexibility linked to the myth that seniority is an automatic measure of competence and commitment.

None of California’s recent schoolhouse embarrassments should have been surprising. There was all manner of huffing and puffing last fall and winter when the legislature struggled with the governor’s demands for reforms, demands ostensibly made to enable California to qualify for RTTT money. One was to eliminate the so-called firewall in state law preventing the use of student test scores in evaluating teachers. Another was to raise the legal cap on the number of California charter schools.

Probably neither was really necessary, despite the nice words that came from Education Secretary Duncan when the firewall went down. The great barrier to using student test scores in evaluating teachers had always been in the local bargaining agreements with unions, not in state law, as it still is.  And the previous limit on charters was already much larger than the number of charters in existence.  

Nonetheless, there was a lot of gubernatorial crowing when the governor signed the last of the legislation which, in the words of a Schwarzenegger press handout in January made “California highly competitive for $700 million in federal education funds.”  

But California’s real problem isn’t in charter caps or in barriers to the use of student test scores in evaluating teachers, stupid as those barriers seem. . Even where test scores can legally be used, there’s no certainty that they can be used wisely. Nor are charters any magic bullet: Some are excellent; many are no better than comparable public schools in their student outcomes, and often worse; some are rip-offs.

What’s currently tripping up California in Washington is that the state has been caught in a shell game. While the state acknowledges that the state is spending less per student this year than last (and will probably be spending still less next year), the governor claims that it’s spending an equal portion of its general fund on schools as in the past and thus is not failing in maintenance of effort.

But he can do that only through an accounting gimmick in his proposed budget. In a letter to state officials the federal Department of Education cites letters from California education and civil rights groups pointing out how the proposed budget “seeks to eliminate a State sales tax on gasoline and substitute…an excise tax on gasoline in order to remove revenues from the state’s general fund and effectively render the Proposition 98 [minimum school funding] guarantee inapplicable to those funds.”  

In addition, the feds raise a series of other accounting questions about the state’s application for a new round of federal stimulus funds, funds which are conditioned on the state’s fulfilling the maintenance of effort commitment it made when it got the first round of education stimulus money last year. Until it answers the questions, the feds say, no decision will be made on whether California will get another round of federal stimulus money.

And under that problem lies a more fundamental one: the state’s chromic unwillingness to adequately invest in its schools and its ongoing disinvestment in its colleges and universities. Depending on how you count we’re now somewhere in the forties among the fifty states in what we spend per pupil in our K-12 schools – far below the U.S. average, and even further below most of the major states -- and lower than that if you measure education spending as a percentage of income. How short-sighted and stupid.

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Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America will be published in 2010.

If Los Angeles and other school districts would follow the law (Proposition 227), drop bi-lingual education and immerse all students in Engish, not only would they save millions; but the students would learn English rapidly.

We are better off not getting federal money ( AKA, pork) and keep our independence. The US Consitution wisely--by its silence--leaves education up to the states. If the feds want to give money, OK, but no rules.

Just today the White House is suggesting what curriclum all schools must follow. In France, and many other countries, teachers are required to teach the same thing on the same day. Do we want that regimentation?

Education in CA now receives enough money but much of it never gets to the classroom--only about 60% does. It is frittered away on administration: e.g, 0ver $4 billion for the 58 county offices of education, millions for the CDE (CA Department of Education), travel, conferences, studies,etc.

I've said it before, I'm compelled to reiterate, Placide is a bit homophobic, a philistine and a religious fanatic on occasion. And those are his good traits.

When any citizen calls for denying his fellow countrymen the same liberties he enjoys because a personal religious belief was for him "compelling reason" enough to alter a secular society's secular constitution, that is not the person whose opinion I would value on any other issue, like education, as exampled here.

And any Prop 8 supporter who points out that marriage equality has been defeated at the polls everytime, be mindful that civil rights have never been granted at the polls, and their comment is cynical and misleading.

Were interracial marriage bans repealed by enlightened voters? No. Would that court ruling in 1949 (Perez v. Sharp)been upheld by McCarthy-era majority? Of course not. Were the Japanese released from internment camps because of public outrage or a special election? Wish we could say yes, but no. What about civil rights? Did southern white voters suddenly feel the pangs of guilt and vote in equality for their fellow southerners? Definitely not, although they did respond to Johnson's noble 1964 legislation by re-registering with the one party willing to uphold their bigotry, the GOP.

Nope, people ought to congratulate Dewey Square for almost winning where no one has won before, and the accolades to Schubert for rehashing Rove's "Pink-o" commie strategy to support a continuation of second class citizenry for gays and lesbians, should be repealed.

On other topics:

Separate Church and State! Be concerned that U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently joined Pat Robertson in calling the most American of all sacred constitutional beliefs, "inherently evil."

If you support 3 strikes, as I do, also support legislation to generate the revenue to pay for it. Bonds aren't really better than taxes, they're just sleazier (are you listening GOP voters?)

challenge anyone who suggests the first California aqueduct was a success,

Attribute as "folly" the idea that our state cannot manage development, build where there's water, not spend billions to move it, and for love of God, decide how many more residents is enough, then cap the development and give the diminishing natural beauty of California a long overdue break.

Are you listening, Senator Steinberg?

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I'd be careful how much you point the finger here or there when trying to fix blame for California's budget crises. We need somebody to come in and clean house so to speak. Get these politicians out of their easy chairs and have them start working for a living like the rest of us.

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