Briefing Report: What's Up With Education?

A Status Report and Overview of Current K-12 School Topics
Wednesday, January 4, 2012

California is so far from achieving its student outcome goals that marginal policy changes are unlikely to produce the desired outcomes.
- “Getting Down to Facts: School Finance and Governance in California” (2006)


“What’s up with education?”  Who has not asked or been asked that question?  Especially in recent years, the question has become more difficult to answer, but the bottom line is that California students score near the bottom among their peers on national tests – and these national peers perform at mediocre levels in international comparisons despite the U.S. spending second only to Switzerland on a per pupil basis.  Yet efforts to fundamentally transform California’s education system fall flat, and instead we are left with myriad marginal policy changes.  This briefing report is intended to summarize some of these changes and point to others that may offer some promise.

Federal Changes: Macro-uncertainty

ESEA.  The chief federal education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education  Act (ESEA), is overdue for congressional reauthorization.  The 2001 bill produced the bi-partisan No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act.  While states, schools, and public education advocates embraced the significantly increased federal funding associated with NCLB, many are now unhappy with the expectations for increased student achievement and adult accountability.  Thus, the pending reauthorization will likely include significant changes.  At this point, however, it is unclear when ESEA reauthorization will be agreed to, or what it will require.  In the meantime, the Obama Administration is “encouraging" states and schools to adopt policies it desires by promising waivers of NCLB accountability sanctions for those who do, and the full force of these sanctions for those who do not. 

Common Core Standards.  As part of the federal Race to the Top eligibility provisions, states were required to adopt so-called Common Core State Standards (CCSS); 45 states have done so.  These academic content standards were developed by a consortium of states and coordinated by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers with an aim to provide for more states what California has had since 1998 – well-defined, rigorous expectations for what we want our children to learn.  California adopted the CCSS in 2010; that was the easy part.  Now comes the task of essentially re-pouring the foundation of the state’s K-12 curriculum, assessment, and accountability programs.  Textbooks and teacher training programs will have to be changed to reflect the new standards.  To assess student mastery of these new standards, the State Board of Education in 2011 selected a new testing program by joining a 30-state consortium called SMARTER Balanced.  This program is still under development, and while some issues surrounding the new standards and curriculum may largely be addressed administratively, other issues will require greater legislative involvement.

State Changes: A Move From Micromanagement?

Testing and Accountability.  The new SMARTER Balanced testing program will need to be sanctioned and supported by the Legislature to replace the state’s Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program, which sunsets in 2014.  Yet many questions remain about SMARTER Balanced and new federal testing rules.  For example, all student testing will be computer-based, but it is unclear how, logistically, millions of students will test within the limited timeframe one might expect necessary to ensure comparable scores among these students.  It is also unclear the extent to which the teachers unions will allow the Legislature or local school boards to comply with federal requirements that the tests provide data for use in teacher and principal evaluations.

The Budget and Local Flexibility.  In 1988, the CTA and PTA convinced 50.7% of California voters to approve Proposition 98.  Advertised as the “Instructional Improvement and Accountability Act,” Prop. 98 has failed miserably to deliver on either promise.  Moreover, if one listens to CTA and PTA lamentations, it has failed in its real goal: to provide “enough money” and “make our schools number one again.”  Now, in the midst of a remarkably prolonged economic downturn, made worse by California’s self-destructive business, family, and tax environment, our school system has experienced real per-pupil funding reductions.  Ironically, these realities – stagnant student performance and California’s spiraling economic environments – have engendered some positive changes.  For example, as part of the 2008-09 Budget, school districts were granted substantial flexibility in the way they spend their funds – a remarkable relief from decades of Sacramento mandating its strict vision for each neighborhood school and classroom.  Despite this flexibility and the beginning of a shift from an inputs-driven system focused on compliance to an outcomes-based system focused on students, some lobbyists, special interests, and legislators look forward to the sunset of flexibility and a return to the top-down, Sacramento-knows-best approach.  A return to such a broken system will further hasten California’s demise as a business- and family-friendly state with any real future.

Local Changes: From Those Marginalized, Real Change

Choice.  Californians have very little confidence in state-level management of K-12 education, and many are tired of waiting for change from the top.  It is not surprising, then, that more parents are seeking alternatives to the status quo government school system.  Over half a million California pupils are enrolled in private schools, others are home-schooled, and charter school enrollment has increased over 180% since 2000-01.  But it’s not just parents choosing charter schools for their children.  Teachers, dissatisfied by the old order, are also drawn to the freedom that charter schools offer and those choosing to teach in charters have increased 190%.  For most, this choice is empowering and the results are positive.  African American students are enrolled in charter schools at higher rates than in traditional government schools and these students have higher Academic Performance Index scores than those in traditional government schools.  Additionally, Oakland’s American Indian Charter School – where 99% the students are minority and nearly 90% are eligible for free meals – is the single highest performing middle school in the state.  The success of charter schools should come as no surprise because charters are fully and truly accountable: those performing below expectations may have their charter revoked and, more organically, parents may simply choose to move their children to another school.

Change.  The sliver of market-based reality that charters bring to public schools may even have spurred broader changes – which is one of the goals of California’s charter school law.  For whatever reason – but certainly not due to Legislative mandate – some traditional government school leaders have taken transformation into their own hands.  For example, in Fresno Unified School District, the superintendent has established a results-oriented culture that has led to increases in student achievement and reduced dropouts.  It is telling that this change occurred not because of Legislative mandates, but despite them.  Fresno, working with Long Beach Unified School District and others, has acted at the local level to meet the unique needs of its community.  In Los Angeles, the move toward parent empowerment and increasing numbers of charter schools, often with the approval of the school board, is further evidence of choice-driven change that benefits pupils, parents, teachers, and society as a whole.

What’s Next for Education?

Given the degradation of the Democrats’ 2011-12 Budget due to its underlying smoke-and-mirrors revenue assumptions, automatic “trigger cuts” will be imposed.  This may cause more pain for school districts – significantly so for those who chose not to act prudently, but to assume best-case revenues.  Meanwhile, the Governor will soon unveil his 2012-13 budget proposal, which may embrace greater local autonomy.  However, it will likely be built on the assumption of billions of dollars more in “temporary” higher taxes (not to be confused with higher tax revenue from sustained increased economic activity).  This would bode poorly for California’s future.  Californians already suffer from the sixth highest tax burden in the nation and coupled with hyper-regulation, employers are fleeing the state, taking jobs and revenue-producing economic activity with them.  This economic climate is unsustainable.  The clock is ticking for California.


For more information on this report or other Education issues, contact Roger Mackensen, Senate Republican Office of Policy at 916/651-1501.