Is California abandoning its poorest students?
That question would be dismissed as absurd by Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Board of Education. For years, leaders have been building a new educational architecture they say will do more for the poorest kids.
But as the elements fall into place, they have grown so complicated that the overall structure seems incoherent. It’s possible that this new system could undermine public accountability, resist public engagement and obscure how disadvantaged students are doing.
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The new foundation is the Local Control Funding Formula, designed to give more money and authority to school districts, especially those with concentrated poverty. It’s accompanied by the new Local Control and Accountability Plans, intended to provide parents and communities more say. The state also adopted Common Core standards for math and English along with a computer-based testing system to better track individual students.
Last month, the state Board of Education wrapped all these elements together in a new accountability system. But rather than inspiring confidence, this new system raised questions about the practicality of the entire architecture. It introduces a host of new school evaluation measures for which data currently does not exist and may not for years. And the board resisted urgent calls from children’s advocates to boil this new system down into a single rating that the public could understand. Instead, the board released a confounding color-coded grid that poses more questions than answers.
Fixing this system isn’t just a matter of redesigning the color grid. The trouble is that it is built upon the many confusing pieces of the new architecture. The new local funding formula encompasses eight priorities, myriad sub-priorities and different grants. And the local plans aren’t local, or even really plans. They are too-long documents answering technical questions posed by the state.
And if all that doesn’t give you a headache, the new system is soon to get even more complicated. It does not mesh with the federal government’s own developing process to identify the worst-off schools and improve them. Last week, Gov. Brown vetoed a bill, overwhelmingly passed in the Legislature, to require the California system to align with the federal one. So there could be two accountability systems for California schools, one answerable to Sacramento, the other to Washington.
This could mean we won’t know for sure how poor kids are doing – which may be just fine with the state. Gov. Brown told the policy website CALmatters this year he didn’t believe the achievement gaps between disadvantaged and other students can be closed, even under his local funding formula.
“The gap has been pretty persistent,” he said, “so I don’t want to set up what hasn’t been done ever as the test of whether the LCFF is a success or failure.”
The defenses of the emerging system are equally lame. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has argued that the complexity of the new system is a virtue since education, and life for that matter, is complex. Michael Kirst, president of the state Board of Education and a Stanford scholar known for clarity, is issuing foggy pleas for patience.
Kirst is right about the need for patience, in a way: 2019, when California gets a new governor, is the first chance Californians will have to stop construction on this incomprehensible mess, and to focus coherently on our poorest students.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.