These are tumultuous times for California schools, affecting how they are financed, what they teach and whether educators are accountable for results.
Local school officials are three years into the Local Control Funding Formula, which gives them a lot more money and flexibility, but also seeks to close the “achievement gap” separating poor and “English learner” students from advantaged classmates.
Districts are still struggling to write Local Control Accountability Plans to guide how LCFF money is to be spent. Policy Analysis for Public Education, an education think tank, has concluded that “implementation of the LCFF is creating an uneasy tension between local control and compliance that threatens to undermine the vision.”
It’s evident, too, that a 56 percent increase in K-12 school spending over the last five years – up $23 billion per year – has not solved all problems. Twenty California school districts were listed by the state this month as being in serious financial distress, including Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest system, and those in San Diego and Oakland.
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As state officials address LCFF discord, they are also exacerbating it. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson last year countermanded his own department and told districts they could spend money meant for underachieving students on salary increases – a boon to the California Teachers Association, which helped Torlakson win re-election in 2014.
Meanwhile, the state Board of Education, appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, is trying to draft a statewide accountability system tied to the LCFF and a new federal education law that requires more specific measures than state officials and the union wanted.
It’s caught between demands by the CTA and local school officials for non-punitive “collaboration” and those of an “equity coalition” of civil rights and education reform groups for tight monitoring of achievement-gap closure with consequences for failure.
Reformers note that the lack of a school grading system has already given L.A. Unified and other districts a rationale for rejecting parental efforts to take control of low-performing schools.
And then there’s Common Core, new and more rigorous learning standards that California has fully embraced.
Initial academic tests tied to Common Core found low achievement levels, and the state school board hired think tank WestEd to survey how it is being implemented.
It found that while most educators praise Common Core’s relevance, there’s a sharp divide in attitudes. Administrators generally rated implementation as good or excellent, but many teachers disagreed, saying they hadn’t been given sufficient training to make Common Core a reality.
One issue, raised during a recent state school board meeting, is whether the state should aggressively intervene on Common Core, or continue the hands-off attitude Brown calls “subsidiarity” and trust local school officials to resolve issues.
These are high-stakes struggles, and not only financial. Six-plus million kids – and California’s future – are guinea pigs for these political experiments.