Dan Walters

Opinion: Big changes buffeting our schools

These are yeasty times for California’s public education system and its 6 million youngsters.

Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature overhauled how state school aid is distributed, removing limitations on billions of dollars, sharply increasing overall aid and directing that it be concentrated on poor and “English-learner” students.

The state also adopted a new Common Core curriculum and ordered big revisions in its “accountability” regime that change academic testing and downplay test scores by adding additional measures, including high school graduation rates and “career preparedness.”

All are works in progress aimed, it’s said, at improving outcomes in a system that’s been deservedly criticized for its shortcomings.

Even more school money is coming.

Under Brown’s 2015-16 budget, K-12 allocations will have increased by $6 billion – $1,000 per pupil – in two years and the Legislature’s budget analyst says higher-than-expected revenue could add another $2 billion this year.

Brown’s also paying local schools billions in deferred allocations from past years and reimbursements for spending mandates.

The concentration of funds on underachieving students is to be guided by “Local Control Accountability Plans,” but writing them has been a rocky and confusing process, several outside evaluations have found, the latest coming Tuesday from the Legislature’s budget analyst. It’s still unclear whether the extra dollars will be truly – and effectively – spent on targeted students or, as some critics fear, diverted into other purposes, such as teacher salary hikes.

Brown has resisted tight state oversight, saying he trusts local school officials to do the right thing.

We won’t know whether the new money improves outcomes without a means of assessing academic gains – and that, too, is in a state of flux.

“This is just the beginning of a conversation,” Richard Zeiger, a top aide to state schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson, said last week as the state Board of Education discussed “developing a new accountability system.”

Michael Kirst, the board’s chairman, has warned that the first round of Common Core testing this spring is likely to show low achievement scores, and school officials are bracing for an adverse public reaction.

Underlying the angst over accountability is an unspoken conflict over whether it’s used not only for overall assessments, but for evaluating individual teachers’ performances.

The California Teachers Association and other unions strenuously oppose such evaluations.

However, EdVoice, an education reform group, on Tuesday released a report noting that objectively evaluating teachers is already required by a state law enacted four decades ago, but ignored by all but a few school districts.

The report implies that another yeasty lawsuit might be in the works.

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

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