Dan Walters

Opinion: A new fight over judging K-12 schools

California’s long-running conflict over how its public schools should be held accountable for educational outcomes entered a new phase this week.

A broad coalition of civil rights and education reform groups fired a broadside at a draft proposal for evaluating how K-12 schools implement the new Local Control Funding Formula, which supposedly targets poor and “English-learner” students for more money and attention.

Representatives of 19 groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and Ed-Voice, issued the critique to WestEd, a San Francisco think tank that’s writing “evaluation rubrics” for the state Board of Education.

Although couched in dense education jargon, the letter essentially accuses WestEd of ignoring the uniform achievement standards it says state law requires in favor of squishier measures, and offers an alternative version.

“Anything less than uniform statewide standards would undercut, if not irreparably impair, meaningful accountability for ensuring equality of educational opportunity, improving student outcomes and closing the achievement gap for all students,” the letter says.

It adds that the lack of statewide standards “would significantly impair public confidence in LCFF and the state’s obligation to ensure a uniform system of public schools.”

Reformers have been fighting a running battle with the education establishment – school boards, administrators and the powerful California Teachers Association – over how much “flexibility” local school officials should have in spending LCFF money, how progress in closing the “achievement gap” will be measured, and what happens when districts fail to meet the program’s goals.

The reformers say that without tight, statewide standards and clearly defined consequences for failure, the billions of extra dollars being pumped into the system could be frittered away, rather than concentrated on helping underachieving students learn.

Gov. Jerry Brown and his top education adviser, Board of Education President Michael Kirst, have sided with the establishment, citing Brown’s “subsidiarity” principle of maximizing local decision-making.

WestEd says the “evaluation rubrics” are being drafted with copious public input. They are to go before the board next month and be finalized next fall.

However, the board may not have the last word. This week’s letter, in contending that uniform state evaluation standards are required by the LCFF, implies that if the final version doesn’t contain them, a lawsuit may be the next skirmish.

Civil rights groups have not been shy about going to court to redress what they perceive as a systemic denial of equal educational opportunities to poor and English-learner students – and they usually win. The ACLU scored one big win just a few weeks ago.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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