A loose coalition of education reform and civil rights groups has been jousting for three years with state officials over how local schools will be held accountable for spending state aid meant to benefit poor and “English learner” students.
The “equity coalition” maintains that without strict state oversight of outcomes, tens of billions of dollars to help 3.5 million students catch up with their privileged classmates might be squandered.
Implicitly, the coalition has worried that union-friendly school boards would divert the money into salary increases rather than spend it directly on disadvantaged kids unless that tendency is curbed by having to meet achievement standards.
However, the coalition’s pleas have largely fallen on deaf ears.
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Gov. Jerry Brown, the Brown-appointed state Board of Education and state schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson insist on what Brown calls “subsidiarity” – trusting local educators and trustees to do the right thing by students with only minimal, non-punitive oversight from Sacramento.
The conflict has seemed destined for a court battle and an initial complaint filed this week by Public Advocates, a major civil rights litigator, indicates that it is, indeed, headed in that direction.
The 11-page complaint alleges that Richmond-centered West Contra Costa Unified School District, in which 75 percent of students qualify for extra aid, has granted a big salary increase to its teachers using funds appropriated for disadvantaged students, but refusing to justify it in the state-required Local Control Accountability Plan meant to oversee expenditures.
Public Advocates filed the complaint with Torlakson, which is tinged with irony.
The state schools chief won a hard-fought re-election in 2014 with heavy support from the California Teachers Association and later countermanded his own department by declaring that the extra state aid meant for underachieving students could be used for teacher salary hikes.
If he fails to compel West Contra Costa Unified to formally justify its action, “complainants will be forced to seek judicial relief in order to prevent the irreparable loss of their rights under the law,” Public Advocates told Torlakson.
The complaint was filed on behalf of Isabel Cruz and two other persons who “use pseudonyms to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the district.”
West Contra Costa Unified denies the allegation, saying the “funds were allocated in accordance with the priorities of the LCAP, following a public hearing on the matter.”
If the dispute winds up in court, as seems inevitable, it would be the latest in a long string of suits filed by education reformers against the state’s education establishment, attempting to force improvement for poor kids.
It would be, in effect, a trial on whether Brown and other state officials can continue to wash their hands of direct responsibility for how the targeted funds are spent, as they have claimed in other cases that are already winding through the courts.
And, lest we forget, the futures of millions of kids are also at stake, as well as the state’s need for an educated citizenry.