Over the last half-decade, California has spent many billions of dollars to close the “achievement gap” that separates poor and “English learner” K-12 students from their more privileged classmates.
The Local Control Funding Formula that provides the extra money for what are termed “at-risk” kids is the handiwork of Gov. Jerry Brown. He not only boasts of allocating even more money to LCFF in his last budget, but counts it as a significant effort to combat California’s high poverty and income disparity rates.
It’s more than a little odd, therefore, that Brown, the state school board he appoints, state schools Supt. Tom Torlakson and the rest of California’s education establishment stoutly resist efforts to closely monitor whether the money is actually being spent on those kids and having a positive effect.
Civil rights and education reform groups have been pressing for such accountability, so far to little avail. In fact, the state’s accountability “dashboard” downplays academic achievement in favor of “multiple measures” and makes it virtually impossible to tell what’s really happening.
Why the resistance from Brown, et al?
The governor and his supporters, including the powerful California Teachers Association, hide behind what he, with characteristic linguistic creativity, calls “subsidiarity” – the notion that local school officials should be trusted to do what’s right.
Implicitly, however, they fear that a stricter accounting for spending and academic results would be embarrassing, and that fear appears to be warranted.
The issue has evolved into a running battle between the education establishment and the “Equity Coalition” of civil rights groups and education reformers, waged in the Legislature, local school boards, the state school board and often the courts.
A skirmish in the State Board of Education last week typifies the larger conflict. The board was weighing whether to continue the present method of gauging academic progress, which is general rather than specific, or shifting, as the reformers want to a “student growth model” that would show individual improvement, or the lack thereof.
By tracking academic achievement of actual students, rather than artificially constructed samples, reformers see it as a way to determine whether LCFF and other efforts to close the achievement gap are actually working.
The method is used in all but a few other states, but the establishment-dominated school board and Torlakson resisted, calling for more delay, and there was an evident fear among defenders of the status quo about using more specific data. Ultimately, the board voted only to “study” the growth model.
Since both Brown and Torlakson will be departing in a few months, the battle over accountability will fall on their successors.
The next governor almost certainly will be Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and he’s already joined at the hip with the CTA and other interests that resist change. In fact, wealthy reformers pumped millions of dollars into the campaign of Newsom’s main Democratic rival, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, only to see him fail.
The identity of the next state schools superintendent is not as clear. Reformers back Marshall Tuck, who came very close to unseating Torlakson four years ago, while the CTA and other establishment groups support Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, a Richmond Democrat.
Their duel is the next front in the never-ending war over the education of six million California students, most of them poor and/or English-learners.