One of the less heralded – albeit, one of the more important – of the many clashes between Sacramento and Washington these days has to do with accountability for educating the state’s 6-plus million K-12 students.

Gov. Jerry Brown, state schools Supt. Tom Torlakson and the state Board of Education have indicated by word and deed that they want soft oversight of how local schools are performing. That’s particularly true regarding how well schools are using billions of dollars in extra state aid to close the “achievement gap” separating poor, Latino and black students from their more affluent white and Asian classmates.

The lack of strict accountability pleases the education establishment, but grates on civil rights and education reform groups, informally organized as an “equity coalition,” and with Brown and the Legislature unwilling to act, members of the coalition have often turned to the courts to press their cause.

There is, however, one more battlefield for California’s perpetual war over public education, a federal law signed by former President Barack Obama called the Every Student Succeeds Act or ESSA.

ESSA requires some of the stricter accountability provisions, particularly relating to underachieving students, that the equity coalition would like to see the state adopt, so it is pressing Brown, Torlakson and the state Board of Education for a full response to the federal mandates – so far unsuccessfully.

Among other things, ESSA directs states to demonstrate how they use federal money to identify and raise achievement for the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and the lowest-performing groups of students in all schools.

That’s the sort of oversight that school reformers want to see at the state level and hope that if the feds force California to comply, it will bolster the case for tighter state-level accountability.

However, Torlakson and the state school board are adopting a minimalist approach to the federal law, and the equity coalition is complaining loudly.

A recent letter to board president Michael Kirst from EdVoice, one of the leading coalition members, calls Torlakson’s latest version “woefully incomplete in meeting minimum federal criteria … to promote basic transparency of academic outcomes, particularly in high school, and intentional programming of resources to enhance, rather than supplant, state and local activities in support of equity for disadvantaged students.”

Other groups are chiming in with similar criticism, as Kirst’s board prepares to finalize its ESSA response. Critics also received a jolt of support last week from an analysis by a national education study organization, finding that California’s response is subpar.

The report came from Bellwether Education Partners, which studied how states are dealing with ESSA, and it gave California low ratings, just one or two points on a five-point scale, in six of nine categories. Bellwether was especially critical of how California would identify and improve the lowest-performing schools – the crux of the reformers’ criticism.

It is pointedly critical of the state’s newly adopted “dashboard” accountability system, which it would use to respond to the federal requirements, echoing reformers’ complaints that it is “unclear how it will be measured and incorporated into an overall measure of school quality.”

Under ESSA, the state receives about $2.6 billion in federal school aid, for underachieving “at-risk” children or about 9 percent of overall spending on them, so the stakes are not immense. Even losing that aid – the potential penalty for ESSA noncompliance – would not be catastrophic.

However, if the state cannot meet even basic accountability standards for how it educates its 3.5 million “high-needs” students, it demonstrates callous disregard for their welfare, and the state’s future. It’s the right thing to do, even if there were no federal law requiring it.

Note: this story was changed 9/7/17 to correctly identify the Every Students Succeeds Act and the share of federal money in the education budget. 

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...