Politics & Government

Dan Walters: Big school overhaul frustrates

Three years ago, Gov. Jerry Brown persuaded legislators to overhaul how tens of billions of dollars in state aid flows to schools.

It pumped more money to schools, virtually eliminated strings on billions of dollars that had been restricted to particular programs, and gave additional aid to districts with large numbers of poor and “English learner” students.

The rationale was that educators would have more money and flexibility to improve educations for 6-plus million kids and close the “achievement gap” that separated – and still separates – poor black and Latino students from their white and Asian American classmates.

Simultaneously, the state was abolishing its test-driven oversight system, creating a new “multiple measures” system that would be, it was said, “a flashlight and not a hammer,” and trusting local school officials to do the right thing through “Local Control Accountability Plans” (LCAPs) that would involve parents and taxpayers.

So how’s all that working out? No one knows.

The “multiple measures” system is still being drafted in impenetrable educational jargon, and the LCAPs are drawing criticism for their own opaqueness. New academic tests, keyed to a new Common Core curriculum, have been administered, but educators insist that they are too new to be meaningful.

Meanwhile, frustration over the inability to gauge results of Brown’s experiment seems to be growing.

Education reform groups, which worry that the billions of new dollars will be squandered rather than focused on the targeted kids, have coalesced into an “equity coalition” and are pressing Brown’s State Board of Education for more specific measures of progress, or lack thereof.

However, the board, headed by Michael Kirst, who devised the overhaul and sold it to Brown, is resisting. So is state schools supintendent Tom Torlakson, who, notably, countermanded his own department’s advice and gave school districts the green light to spend the extra grants meant for underachieving kids on teacher salary increases.

The reformers’ skepticism seems to be taking hold in the Legislature, even among its most liberal members. Torlakson and Kirst received some sharp grilling last week during hearings in both houses.

“We don’t want to measure the inputs, we want to measure the outputs,” Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, offered during a Senate hearing that was stacked with Kirst and other defenders of the status quo.

A few “equity coalition” speakers edged their way into the hearing. “Achievement gaps must be shown in the new accountability system,” Liz Guillen of Public Advocates told legislators.

“You don’t know how the $32 billion is being spent,” her colleague, John Affeldt, added.

The critical tone of the Senate hearing was mirrored in the Assembly, with Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, sniping at the Brown administration for removing language from a budget trailer bill that would have required school districts to reveal specifically how they are spending money meant for the disadvantaged.

This is important, even vital, stuff. Not only are huge sums of money being spent, but the futures of millions of children – and perhaps that of the entire state – are hanging in the balance. And the best Brown, Kirst, Torlakson, et al. are giving us, basically, is “Trust us.”