Expectations are high. California’s K-12 education system is undergoing top-to-bottom changes in hopes of improving learning and closing the achievement gap. The new Common Core Academic Standards are entering textbooks and classrooms. Voters approved a massive tax hike to increase education funding. The Governor and Legislature have focused education dollars on poor and English learner (EL) pupils while granting local school boards far greater autonomy on how the dollars are spent. Californians have not seen such dramatic and far-reaching changes in at least half a century and are understandably optimistic. The question is: Will it work? Will these changes help students succeed? How will we know this? What if it doesn’t?
The New Education Landscape
In August 2010, the State Board of Education (SBE) adopted the Common Core standards for English language arts and mathematics. Describing what students should know and be able to do, these standards replaced California’s excellent standards adopted in 1998. Advocates promise that the Common Core standards will improve learning by focusing on deeper understanding and application of ideas. The 2013-14 budget included $1.2 billion for school districts to purchase materials and provide professional development as they continue to implement Common Core in classrooms.
The passage of Prop. 30 in November 2012 marked a second major change. Prop. 30’s proponents promised the $6 billion in higher taxes annually would fund schools. This was a compelling argument to voters frustrated with a Legislature that has consistently prioritized other legislative programs such that California, despite already having one of the highest tax burdens of any state, ranks below the national average in per capita spending on K-12 education. In short, Prop. 30 would pave the way for other reforms.
The last transformation was the enactment of the local control funding formula (LCFF). While significantly increasing per pupil allocations for EL and poor children, LCFF also removed most Sacramento mandates governing how schools spend their allocations and serve pupils. Instead, school districts will have greater discretion in selecting and implementing programs, but will be expected to improve outcomes for ELs and students in poverty – populations too long plagued with poor performance and high dropout rates.
So California voters have a right to be optimistic: we have been promised new and improved academic standards, we have been assured schools will be saved by raising billions of dollars in higher taxes, and we have been empowered to run our local schools in a way that best suits us, freed from Sacramento mandates and restrictions.
Hope is important, but change – improvement – is the key. Despite all the promises, many questions remain. Adoption of the Common Core standards is a leap of faith. The idea – focus more on teaching how to think rather than what to think – is not altogether objectionable. Moreover, its authors assure us that the standards are research based. That is no guarantee. “Whole Language” reading instruction, a “research based” curricular experiment California undertook in the late 1980s, was a disaster for students, failing to teach them vital language arts skills. We are hopeful that this latest shift in curriculum will improve our pupil’s test scores, reduce dropout rates, prepare kids for careers, or lead to more college completions.
In the same way, Prop. 30 provides no guarantee. This has already been proven. Despite campaign promises, the Legislature diverted billions of dollars of Prop. 30 tax revenue away from education. In fact, over half went to non-education purposes in 2013-14 and similar diversions are proposed for 2014-15. This is consistent with the low priority the Legislature has long placed on education compared to other states. Rhetorically education is the top priority, but reality measured by relative level of effort (expenditures per capita) tells a different story. While California ranks 8th nationally in total state and local expenditures, it ranks 21st in K-12 expenditures – the only area (besides highways, unsurprisingly) in which its level of effort is below the national average. (See National Education Association Rankings & Estimates, Dec. 2012.)
Regardless of the level, it is well-known that how schools spend money is at least as important as how much they spend, and that is where local control comes in. LCFF frees school districts from decades of ever-tighter mandates and restrictions, allowing them to spend more on programs that work for their communities and less on Sacramento mandates. At the same time, however, it focuses education funding on school districts with high percentages of English learners and poor children. This is a welcome change as far as it goes, but it only goes so far. The Legislature and Governor are willing to give up only so much control. The LCFF law still requires schools to address eight state “priorities,” and the Legislature has continued to deny local governing boards authority over teacher assignments so that all classrooms can be staffed with the best teachers.
The Knowledge Gap
Expectations are high, but Californians are results-oriented and want the best for their kids and the economy. Understandably, voters want to know whether the changes put in place are working to decrease the dropout rate, close the achievement gap, and send more kids to college. Unfortunately, it may be several years until we know. In October 2013, the Governor signed AB 484, which eliminates state testing for the 2013-14 school year and perhaps beyond. For decades, students in grades 2-11 have been tested each year in a variety of subjects, providing feedback to parents, teachers, and policymakers and generating the raw data to establish each school’s ranking on the Academic Performance Index (API). AB 484 stopped this. Instead, limited “field testing” in only two subjects will be conducted in spring 2014 to test schools’ ability to administer the new test, but it is forbidden for the results to be used for accountability purposes. Moreover, no API will likely be calculated and reported to the public until at least the summer 2015. Even then, the API will essentially have been so altered that it will take even more time to establish a baseline and performance trends for any given school. This is troubling because the LCFF legislation requires each school district to develop a Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) to establish local goals and allow a community to measure school and district performance. But without pupil test scores or a school API, community members will be in the dark as to how well their schools are serving their kids. This lack of transparency bodes ill for the public and policymakers who may find in the future that their hopes have been dashed. One certainly hopes that this will not be the case. In the meantime, all efforts should be focused on implementing and improving the new system for pupils and parents throughout the state.
For more information on this report or other Education issues, contact Roger Mackensen, Senate Republican Office of Policy at 916/651-1501.