The multi-front political and legal war over the direction of California’s immense public school system has a new front.
The state Board of Education – and inferentially, Gov. Jerry Brown and the education establishment – want to take a minimalist approach to complying with the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Civil rights and education reform groups don’t like it. They had hoped that compliance with the federal law governing accountability for academic achievement, particularly among poor and non-white students, would beef up what they say is weak oversight by the state.
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Under the law, passed late in the Barack Obama presidency but now enforced by Donald Trump’s regime, the state is supposed to tell Washington how it will spend $2.5 billion in federal funds to improve outcomes for poor kids who make up the majority of California’s 6-plus million public school students.
The plan being readied for adoption by the school board would give the feds minimal information, basically just filling in the blanks as required but offering little detail. State officials say they are wary of giving more specifics because they don’t know yet how Trump’s Department of Education will enforce the new law.
That irritates the reformers, who have battled with the board for years over how schools will be held accountable for the extra money they receive – billions of dollars each year – specifically to raise academic achievement of poor and/or “English learner” students.
Brown and the board have adopted a “multiple measures” system of accountability that gives local schools maximum flexibility to spend the money without, the critics say, having to prove that it’s being spent effectively.
The battle has been fought in lengthy state school board meetings, in the Legislature and in the courts via lawsuits alleging that districts have diverted the Local Control Funding Formula money to purposes other than helping the targeted students.
The reformers had hoped that the federal law, which superficially requires tighter accountability than the state’s system, would be a lever to tighten up state oversight, but the minimalist approach being taken seemingly thwarts that goal.
“After months of feedback and engagement, the current plan doesn’t address the core issues that we know are absolutely essential to support high-needs students,” Samantha Tran of Children Now, one of the reform advocates, told EdSource, a website devoted to California school issues. “The state seems to be abdicating an essential civil rights role, and it’s disheartening.”
If the board finalizes the current draft of the response, or makes only tiny changes, this phase of California’s years-long war over schools will shift to Washington. It’s likely that the critics will petition the Trump Department of Education to reject the state’s plan as inadequate and compel a rewrite that would reopen the issue in Sacramento.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the underlying issue. Roughly 60 percent of California’s K-12 public school students are considered at risk, and it goes as high as 100 percent in some districts. Those 3.5-plus million kids are our future and if they are not adequately educated we all will pay the price in crime, social dislocation and economic stagnation.
Brown and those he appoints seem unwilling to make sure that the extra money he championed is actually spent on those kids, and in a manner that does improve their academic outcomes. Therefore, it falls on the education reform and civil rights organizations to stand up for them.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/articles/author/dan-walters. Dan Walters: firstname.lastname@example.org