Dan Walters

California’s warring education factions dueling over federal rules

Stacey Jacobson-Francis works on math homework with her six-year-old daughter, Luci, in 2014 at their home in Berkeley, coping with new demands of the Common Core set of academic standards. Jacobson-Francis said her daughter’s new homework required her to know four different ways to add.
Stacey Jacobson-Francis works on math homework with her six-year-old daughter, Luci, in 2014 at their home in Berkeley, coping with new demands of the Common Core set of academic standards. Jacobson-Francis said her daughter’s new homework required her to know four different ways to add. AP

The newest front in California’s perpetual war over the direction of its public schools is in Washington, D.C.

State education officials have been battling a coalition of civil rights and education-reform groups over holding local schools accountable for academic outcomes.

The state Board of Education is on the verge of approving a “multiple measures” system that downplays academic testing, but critics say it’s too obtuse to be a meaningful tool for parents and the public.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Actlooms over California’s wrangling.

When the ESSA was passed last year, state officials hailed it as a complementary move away from top-down judgments toward more flexibility and local control. They talked confidently about designing a single accountability system that would meet federal and state standards.

However, ESSA still required schools to be ranked and the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools to be identified. The draft regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Education bolster that mandate, requiring states to “assign a comprehensive, summative rating for each school to provide a clear picture of its overall standing.”

Suddenly, state officials were disenchanted with what was coming from Washington, characterizing it as continuing the punitive attitude of the discarded No Child Left Behind program.

Conversely, however, the “equity coalition” of groups critical of multiple measures saw in the proposed federal rules elements of what they had been trying, unsuccessfully, to get the state to include.

This month, in a 10-page letter, Board of Education President Michael Kirst and Tom Torlakson, the state superintendent of schools, spelled out unhappiness with the federal rules, saying they “will derail the significant progress being made in our state towards creating a single, aligned system.”

Simultaneously, however, 14 civil rights and school reform groups dispatched their own letter to Washington, supporting at least some of the draft rules that Kirst and Torlakson criticized. They said the state, not federal regulations, is the chief impediment to having a unified accountability system.

Underlying the conflict, both in Sacramento and Washington, is the state’s new system of financing schools, one that provides additional money to districts with large numbers of poor and/or “English-learner” students.

The Local Control Funding Formula is aimed at closing the “achievement gap” between those students – about 60 percent of California’s six million K-12 youngsters – and their more privileged classmates.

Kirst, Torlakson and Gov. Jerry Brown generally want to leave implementation to local officials with soft, non-punitive oversight from the state, but critics say that without firm accountability standards, local school officials, under political pressure, may squander the extra money and not focus it on improving outcomes for the underachievers.

Thus, the federal rules, if left intact, could give the “equity coalition” the data to judge which schools and student groups are succeeding and which aren’t.

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