Open Reporting: Inside Education
This post is part of our Open Reporting at CALmatters, in which we share progress on stories as we’re developing them, while also inviting you to share thoughts and comments to help inform our research. Our goal: more transparent and effective journalism. We welcome your feedback.
Every person has a right to inspect any public record during a public agency’s normal business hours.
That’s what the California’s Public Records Act promises, with a few exceptions, but it’s not what I got in January when I visited two Los Angeles County school districts and asked to review their budgets.
My requests were denied and I was turned away.
The two districts—Paramount Unified and Lennox Elementary—eventually released the contested records, but the saga is emblematic of an access problem so serious that it has become a surprisingly large part of my upcoming story on the school funding formula California adopted more than three years ago.
The formula, which aims to close a wide achievement gap among California students, directs extra cash to districts with high concentrations of students from low-income families, foster youth and kids learning English. The policy was championed by Gov. Jerry Brown, and its success or failure will be part of his legacy once he leaves office in two years.
I set out to answer what I thought were a few simple questions: How much money has the state invested in the biggest districts with the highest concentrations of disadvantaged students? What did school officials spend it on? What have they accomplished so far?
They’re the kind of questions that any parent may want to ask about the state’s Local Control Funding Formula, but the answers have been far tougher to pin down than I could have imagined.
My first roadblock was here in Sacramento at the governor’s Department of Finance.
Every school district gets a certain amount of money called base funding, which is calculated using attendance data. The new formula layers on additional funding, called supplemental and concentration grants, for districts with large shares of needy students. I asked the department for spreadsheets showing how much grant money was delivered—was the new funding a pittance or a windfall?
No such luck. Although the funding formula is a state policy, state officials don’t track the streams of money individually. Finance officials suggested I look for answers in school districts’ Local Control Accountability Plans, and that’s where I faced my next challenge.
These documents are supposed to help parents and community members understand districts’ priorities and how they’re spending public money to attain their goals. But most are hundreds of pages long and filled with technical language an average reader could never decipher.
Fortunately, one part of the document requires districts to report the amount of supplemental and concentration grant funding they receive.
Unfortunately, they aren’t required to specify the share of that money that’s new, making it impossible to track the state’s additional investment year to year.
Unable to find what I’d been looking for in a public record or a database, I tried going directly to the local districts themselves—contacting 15 school systems and asking how much of each type of funding they had received, what they spent it on, and what they had achieved so far.
That was two months ago, and I have little more information now than when I placed those first few calls.
More than half of the districts refused to respond to any of my questions. A few would only say how much extra money for needy students they had received, not how they had spent it. Others complained about the burden I had placed on them by asking the questions.
“I’m going to see if that’s something we can identify without going through a forensic audit,” said Marlene Dunn, the chief business officer for Lynwood Unified School District, located in Los Angeles County. “It could take a couple hundred hours of staff time to give you that information in that manner. You’re asking us to go back in time and find something we didn’t track.”
So what do I know about how districts spent the tens of billions of dollars in funding that schools have received since the state adopted the new formula?
I’m still trying to learn more. Stay tuned for the full story CALmatters is set to publish soon.
How is California regulating for-profit colleges? That’s the question CALmatters and The Sacramento Bee sought to answer when we requested student complaint records from the state’s Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education.
The bureau licenses more than 1,000 of these and other private vocational schools to operate in the state, from beauty schools to online colleges. It’s also charged with responding to student concerns and managing a state fund that reimburses students for costs when a school closes.
With some for-profit colleges coming under scrutiny in recent years for aggressive recruiting and financial mismanagement, we were curious: What kinds of complaints were students filing with the bureau? And how was the bureau responding?
Unfortunately, in most cases, we still don’t know. The bureau denied our request for complaint records, citing an exemption to the state’s public records law for “investigatory or security files.” It’s the same exemption that allows police departments to provide only limited information about cases they’re investigating.
Attorneys for The Sacramento Bee argued that state law doesn’t exempt complaints made to a licensing agency from disclosure, only those to police agencies. The bureau disputed that in a four-page letter maintaining its refusal to release any requested records.
But blanket denials of records by licensing agencies pose a danger to democracy, said attorney David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a non-profit that advocates for open government.
“There are an enormous number of agencies involved in licensing in California,” said Snyder. “The public should be able to see how these agencies are carrying out their mission and whether agencies are doing an adequate job of regulating the field they’re assigned to regulate.”
Bureau staff did point us to their website—but that lists only cases in which the bureau took disciplinary action, and doesn’t include the original complaint filed by the student. There’s no way to see how the bureau is handling cases in which it decides not to act.
In a separate letter to CALmatters, the agency’s lawyers said releasing the complaint files could create a “chilling effect on the bureau’s complaint-handling process.” Withholding them, they argued, guards the confidentiality of those who complain, and protects current or future investigations.
They did not address why they couldn’t protect confidentiality by redacting personal information of complainants, however.
Other California state entities, including the Fair Political Practices Commission and the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, provide copies of complaints in response to inquiries, though personal information is sometimes redacted.
“We try to find that balance between due process for people facing allegations and the public’s right to know,” said FPPC spokesperson Jay Wierenga.
Faced with a similar request, Florida regulators released records of complaints against for-profit colleges after reporters at the Miami Herald requested them.
We will continue to press for access. In the meantime, keep an eye on CALmatters.org and The Bee for more coverage of for-profit colleges.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s landmark school funding formula would not only win more money under the state budget blueprint he released Wednesday but also be subjected to the sort of transparency and accountability lawmakers and advocates for needy kids have been seeking since its adoption almost five years ago.
The formula directs significant sums of extra cash toward districts with foster youth, kids learning English and students from low-income families, acknowledging that it costs more to educate them. It also gives districts power to decide how to spend their extra money to shrink the academic achievement gap between those groups of students and their peers.
But as I reported in a June investigation for CALmatters, the funding is almost impossible to track and the results so far have been underwhelming.
In a summary outlining his spending priorities, Brown acknowledged a few of his well-intentioned policy’s shortcomings and proposed some fixes that he thinks will help boost the state’s sagging academic achievement. He conceded for the first time that valid “concerns have been raised” about the policy’s effectiveness. It’s a stunning departure. Previously, the governor had been resistant to changing the formula.
“While many districts have seized the opportunities offered under the formula to better serve their students, others have been slower to make changes,” Brown wrote.
To “improve student achievement and transparency,” Brown proposes requiring districts to demonstrate a connection between their priorities and the way they spend the extra cash generated by their disadvantaged students. He also wants the state to start calculating and reporting the amount of extra funding each district receives.
An open report I wrote last March explained how tough it is to follow the money without any of that information.
But even as he called for state-level policy changes aimed at boosting achievement, Brown emphasized his belief in local control and struck a defiant tone when asked at a Capitol news conference about California’s lackluster standardized test scores.
“Kids learn at home or in the classroom. When that door shuts, there’s no legislator, there’s no governor,” Brown said. “So people who really want to help a school that’s not performing, go to that school, go talk to that principal. That’s the philosophy I want to promote.”
“We’re looking in the wrong place when we’re looking at Sacramento,” he added.
Democratic Assemblywoman Shirley Weber of San Diego has been fighting for fiscal transparency alongside other lawmakers and advocates for disadvantaged kids since Brown signed the formula into law in 2013.
In an interview, she said she doesn’t want to “declare victory” until she’s had a chance to review the proposals’ details more closely, but that she’s hopeful the policy might finally get fixed.
“A year ago, I told the governor that he needs to solve this transparency problem before he leaves office,” Weber said. “At least now I know I wasn’t hollering into the wilderness for 40 years like Moses or something. He was listening. I think this was his way of saying, ‘I heard you, Shirley.’”
Carrie Hahnel, the deputy director of research and policy at Education Trust-West, a nonprofit advocacy organization committed to closing the achievement gap, shares Weber’s cautious optimism.
On one hand, she said, it’s exciting to see the administration recognize the concerns that advocates, researchers and journalists have expressed about the lack of budget transparency. But she called the language in the budget summary “weak,” noting that it doesn’t explicitly demonstrate any new commitments.
Hahnel’s organization and others will learn more about the proposal later this month when Brown’s Department of Finance releases detailed budget bill language. This spring, the proposal will be vetted by members of the state Legislature’s fiscal committees.
Many questions about the scope of the plan remain unanswered, but even still, Hahnel said the shift in tone is something to celebrate: “He’s finally acknowledging that something needs to be done.”
Why does San Francisco, a hub for technological innovation, struggle to educate its black students?
I examined this question in a recent article for CALmatters—one that has stirred conversations and generated a rebuttal from two of the city’s board of education members who declined my initial requests for interviews. Black families are concentrated in public housing in the city’s Bayview neighborhood, where teachers are more likely to be inexperienced. Across the district, one in five teachers are new, and in Bayview schools, one in three are. The district pointed to that fact as a contributor to black students’ poor academic results.
And that fact has gnawed at me. How do so many new teachers wind up in the most challenging classrooms?
The district tries to convince veteran educators to work in the Bayview and even offers annual bonuses to the ones who say yes. But few do, said district spokeswoman Jessica Qian Wan, who added that the district cannot forcibly assign teachers to any of its schools. Officials from the union representing the city’s educators wouldn’t say why its most experienced members don’t want to work in the Bayview, and they declined to connect me with a teacher for an interview.
San Francisco isn’t the only district where inexperienced teachers work in struggling schools. The pattern is common and it’s a topic I’ll be examining closely over the next several weeks for CALmatters. I want to hear from administrators, educators and parents to get their sense of the problem, and share their ideas about what can and should be done to improve such schools. You can reach me at [email protected] or tweet @calefati to share your thoughts.
In the meantime, a San Francisco teacher is helping me understand what it’s like to work in one.
Tachelle Herron* is a Bayview resident who has been teaching humanities at Willie L. Brown Middle School since it opened in 2015. This year, only 10 percent of the school’s African-American students passed the state test in reading, and only 2 percent passed math. I had emailed every teacher in the school seeking comment. Herron and I were introduced by staff at Coleman Advocates, one of San Francisco’s oldest community groups, and I met her in her classroom on a recent afternoon to discuss what’s driving those disappointing results.
She is, of course, only one of the district’s more than 3,000 teachers. But her perspective—condensed and lightly edited for clarity—is compelling:
“They put the newest teachers in the Bayview. And those teachers are drowning. They ask me for help all day long. These teachers have no experience working with students in the south side section of San Francisco.
When you’re starting a new assignment, and you look around the room to see if students are writing down their names and the date on their papers, the new teachers don’t know how to look at their fingernails. Bitten off fingernails is a sign of straight trauma.
Before I teach a child for two weeks, I want to know your birthday, your name, where you live, where your mama lives, how you are, what you ate for breakfast this morning, where you slept last night. I have to get to know you before I can teach you. Then I’ll do the syllabus, then I’ll do the calls home and all that other stuff.
I have all these tricks in my bag because I was taught by the best. That aroma? That’s lavender. It calms you down off the top. Period. That’s a trick. I also have lotion. You’re upset? You lotion your little hands up. The lotion is gone now because there’s so much trauma.
But other teachers? They’re not using the tools that the founding teachers are trying to give them. We have methods to this madness. They don’t want to hear it.
The students and their behaviors make this job harder—for sure. We can’t blame them, though.
Many of our students come from homes that are loud, confusing, empty and unstable. There’s no one there guiding them, asking to see their homework, telling them to take a bath, asking them to wash their clothes, telling them, ‘Come here, let me hold you, let me kiss you, let me touch you.’
These kids don’t have that. We call it a broken home. I call it an absent home.
And that lead to fights. The other day, we had eight fights in two hours.
Recently, a girl got beat up by a boy right here in my classroom. All she said was, ‘Yo Mama,’ but that boy’s mama had been shot in the face, so it triggered him. He punched her in the head and chest 15 times.
This student is truant. He’s always tardy. And he’s the smartest black boy in the school. He can remember anything. You give him one of your credit cards, he can remember every number, front and back. He has an 11th grade reading level. But those were last year’s numbers. This year…mama got shot in the face, his home was relocated….It’s a wonder this boy and his brother come to school at all.
I feel horrible. All of it makes me feel horrible. I might be leaving at the end of next school year. I just don’t see it getting any better. I’ve ended many school days crying in my car. I have a master’s degree in equity and social justice, and I worry that I wasted my time in college studying something that may never be fixed.
Still, I know we could do so much better. We could start tomorrow.
Smaller class sizes, pull out methods, one-on-one guidance, etiquette class, behavior class, force-feeding them a healthy diet. I hate to say it like that, but it would help.
‘I really want you to sit here and eat this apple. I really want you to sit here and drink this milk. I want you to drink this water, and every time you take a sip, I want you to tell me a happy thought. I want you to learn how to breathe and meditate. I want you to touch my hand. I want to touch your hand.’ Kids here haven’t even been touched. I give more hugs at this school than I’ve given in my whole life.’
The kids need love. They need to be touched. They need to know that someone cares.
And if we do that, starting Monday, we’ll see a change.”
- An earlier version of this open reporting post misspelled Herron’s name.
California has never spent more on public schools than it does today, but the amount it invests per-pupil still ranks near the bottom compared to other states.
With one particular fixed cost expected to grow rapidly over the next few years, things could get even worse.
I’m talking about pensions—the amount of money school districts must contribute annually to cover their teachers and other staff members in retirement.
In the past year, CALmatters, Capital Public Radio and the Los Angeles Times have partnered to examine the history of the state’s pension woes and how key decisions to boost public workers’ benefits without setting aside extra money to pay for them have threatened the bottom lines for universities as well as state and local governments. Now, we’re turning our attention to schools.
Districts’ pension costs are set to double by 2021—just as growth in the state education budget is projected to slow down and as pressure mounts for schools to boost standardized test scores. Those realities have districts worried about how they’ll balance their budgets and provide for students.
Over the next several weeks, I’ll be exploring what it means for teachers and students and sharing what I learn.
Most teachers’ pensions are modest, but balancing the cost of their retirement with the cost of their students’ learning has never been easy. When the California School Boards Association surveyed its members earlier this year, the group found that rising pension costs have already led about half of them to cut programs to help balance their budgets. Some teachers unions have a different perspective. One local union seeking a raise during contract negotiations downplayed the district’s pension burden and argued there was actually enough money in reserves to cover the higher pay it wanted.
Needless to say, this topic is complex and charged. We hope our report will provide clarity. And to ensure our reporting is as fair and as comprehensive as possible, we need your help. We want to hear from you.
Do you have a strong feeling to share about whether teachers’ pensions are too costly or not generous enough? Is there an interesting report on this topic that you feel I have to read while I do my reporting? Are you a school board member grappling with this problem right now and unsure what to do?
Email me at [email protected] or tweet @calefati, using #cmteacherpensions. We’ll be sharing updates about this story and engaging conversation using that hashtag.
We’ll also be contacting the state Department of Finance, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, the California State Teachers Retirement System, the California Public Employee Retirement System, the Brown administration, state lawmakers and staff from both sides of the aisle, school officials, teachers and their union representatives, parents and interest groups—asking for help understanding this topic and also sharing our findings to seek further comments.
And we plan to keep readers posted on key developments as they arise. Stay tuned.