Dan Walters

Dan Walters: California has skirmishes all around in school war

The epic war between California’s education establishment and a loose coalition of school reform and civil rights groups rages on many fronts.

Combatants clash in the Legislature, in the state Board of Education, in local school board meetings, in school district, legislative and statewide elections, and, ultimately, in the courts.

One of their many specific issues is whether charter schools, despised by school unions and their political allies, should play a larger role in attacking the state’s persistent “achievement gap.”

This week, the Los Angeles Times revealed the existence of a 44-page draft plan circulating among wealthy philanthropists for shifting as many as half of the students in the much-troubled Los Angeles Unified School District into charters – a move that unions would consider a major escalation of the war.

While the California Teachers Association and other elements of the establishment have pretty much had their way in Sacramento, the battles in local school districts have gone both ways, depending on local circumstances.

When spurned in those arenas, however, the reformer-civil-rights coalition has turned to the courts with consistent success, including forcing union-dominated school boards to approve charters initiated by parents.

Several lawsuits target Gov. Jerry Brown and Tom Torlakson, the union-friendly state schools superintendent, alleging that they have failed to ensure that local schools are giving “high-risk” poor and English-learner students the attention they need – a need confirmed by the recent Smarter Balanced math and English tests.

When confronted in court, the two politicians have argued that they have done their duty by enacting the Local Control Funding Formula, which provides extra money for educating those kids.

They also have contended that by leaving LCFF implementation to local districts, what Brown terms “subsidiarity,” they have effectively handed off legal responsibility.

However, they haven’t succeeded in persuading judges that they can wash their hands of responsibility, most recently in a suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of high-risk students, alleging that they hadn’t received the attention state and federal law require.

“A state cannot abdicate its supervisory responsibilities by ignoring credible evidence of persistent or significant district noncompliance,” Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Chalfant declared in a recent 45-page decision. “If districts fail to provide services and the state has notice of this failure, the state has a duty … to take reasonable action.”

Faced with that, state officials backed down and agreed to monitor what districts are doing for high-risk kids.

That acknowledgment could affect another front in the school war: demands by reformers and civil rights groups that the LCFF “accountability” process now being written by the state school board hold districts responsible for outcomes as they spend the extra money.