Political Notebook

Dan Walters: U.S. school bill roils our debate

Both sides in California’s perpetual war over the direction of its immense public school system found something to like in the new federal education bill that President Barack Obama signed Thursday.

And that means, of course, that both found something to dislike.

The Every Student Succeeds Act replaces the No Child Left Behind law that former President George W. Bush persuaded Congress to enact and state and local education officials intensely disliked as being too simplistic and inflexible in rating schools only on academic test results.

The now-discarded law was similar in thrust to the California school rating system that former Gov. Gray Davis championed, assigning each school an Academic Performance Index (API) score based on its test scores.

California has been dismantling the API system and writing a “multiple measures” accountability system that sharply downplays test scores and eliminates direct consequences for failing to meet standards.

The state Board of Education, state schools chief Tom Torlakson and other elements of the education establishment have been sparring with civil rights and education reform groups over the accountability issue.

The latter say that “multiple measures” will not hold school officials responsible for failing to close the “achievement gap” that separates poor and nonwhite kids – nearly 60 percent of the state’s 6-plus million students – from their more affluent, white and Asian American classmates.

The new federal education bill embraces multiple measures, which makes the education establishment happy. But it also still requires, as a condition of receiving federal aid, students to be tested on their reading, math and science skills, for test results to be reported by demographic group and, perhaps most importantly, rating schools and intervening in those in the bottom 5 percent of overall performance.

So while the state’s educators are trying to do away with the API, it’s being kept alive, in effect, by the federal law.

Michael Kirst, Gov. Jerry Brown’s top education adviser and president of the state school board, told the Los Angeles Times that the new federal law may short-circuit efforts to do away with the API and use “multiple measures.”

“If we’re forced to come up with a number, our debate is over. We can’t turn down federal aid,” Kirst said, adding, “The idea that it all has to come down to a single number, that was the problem with the API.”

In continuing to require officials to identify low-performing schools, the federal law also may rescue another aspect of the accountability process that the education establishment dislikes – the “parent trigger” law that allows parents to intervene when a school is failing, even seizing control and converting it to a charter.

It may force the education establishment to seek outright repeal of the parent trigger rather than allowing it to wither with the abolition of the API. And that would be still another skirmish in the war.