Conflict over the direction of California’s public schools, pitting school reformers and civil rights groups against the education establishment, plays out in many venues.
One burning issue is whether schools will be held strictly accountable for outcomes under the new Local Control Funding Formula, which is aimed at closing the “achievement gap” between poor and “English-learner” students and more advantaged classmates.
One of the arenas is the Assembly’s Committee on Education, whose chairman, former teacher Patrick O’Donnell, unabashedly backs the establishment, particularly the California Teachers Association.
He showed his allegiance last Thursday when fellow Democrat and committee member Shirley Weber offered a bill that would create the kind of specific accountability system that the reformers and civil rights groups seek.
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The bill’s sponsors are The Education Trust-West and Children Now, but 73 other groups are backers. There’s only one stated opponent: the CTA.
The CTA doesn’t want any system that might lead to teachers being evaluated on their students’ achievement levels and joined with O’Donnell in branding Weber’s bill “premature” because the state school board is writing its own accountability plan.
O’Donnell breached legislative protocol when he interrupted her presentation to call on two witnesses, supposedly to describe the process now underway, but who were, in effect, opposing Weber. One represented state schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson, who is also closely aligned with the CTA.
Weber said the state needs “a single coherent system of accountability,” echoing complaints that the “multiple measures” system being considered by the state school board sidesteps direct accountability for outcomes under the new LCFF financing system.
“There is a process in place,” O’Donnell countered.
It was not the first time O’Donnell and Weber, who was born to a sharecropper family in Arkansas but became a university professor, had clashed. Last year, when she carried a bill altering the state’s controversial teacher tenure system, she sparred with O’Donnell, who tried to hijack portions for his own CTA-backed measure. “You’re going to rape me, rape my bill, and take it as your own?” she shot at O’Donnell.
Nor was it the first time O’Donnell had used his chairmanship to block anti-establishment groups from being heard.
Last December, during a hearing on the tenure issue – sparked by a pending lawsuit – he repeatedly interrupted another legislator, Republican Catharine Baker, as she talked about her tenure reform bill and limited a plaintiff in the lawsuit to just one minute while inviting union leaders to make long presentations.
The clash between the CTA-led establishment and reform groups will grow more heated as court battles over specific issues, including tenure, continue, as the state Board of Education plows ahead with its hotly disputed version of accountability, and as the Weber bill makes its way through the legislative process.
With O’Donnell abstaining, it cleared his committee on a bipartisan 5-0 vote.