Commentary: Uncle Sam gives school reformers a gift

A new year brings renewal of hope, it’s said, but it also means renewed political and legal hostilities over the direction of California’s public school system.

For years, an “Equity Coalition” of civil rights and education reform groups has battled the state’s education establishment – state schools Supt. Tom Torlakson, the state Board of Education and the California Teachers Association, most notably – over how the “achievement gap” should be addressed.

That’s the wide differential in academic performance between poor Latino and black students and their more privileged white and Asian classmates.

The establishment says more money is the answer and Gov. Jerry Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) provides money specifically to improve the standing of the “high-risk”students.

However, with Brown calling it “subsidiarity,” he and other state officials have been content to provide the extra money to local school districts with high numbers of targeted students with few strings.

In the same vein, the state’s new accountability “dashboard” minimizes academic improvement and specifically eschews direct intervention for schools that fail to improve.

The Equity Coalition, however, says the money is being allocated without needed oversight on how well it’s being spent and has pressed, so far with limited success, for more accountability for outcomes.

Their battle has been waged in the Legislature, in the state school board, in local school districts and often in the courts.

So far, there’s little evidence that LCFF is, in fact, narrowing the achievement gap, but defenders of the status quo say it just needs more time and more money to show results.

One of the many fronts in the school war has been the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which requires states, as a condition of receiving federal school aid, to provide some of the direct oversight and accountability that the Equity Coalition seeks, especially in identifying failing schools.

Torlakson and the state school board have chosen to comply with the law minimally but just before Christmas the U.S. Department of Education politely told them, via a 12-page letter, that the plan they submitted was falling short of the ESSA law’s requirements.

It was the gift that the Equity Coalition had been hoping to receive.

“California leaders have made programming of these extra resources a mockery to disadvantaged students,” Bill Lucia, executive director of EdVoice, said in a statement.

Some might dismiss the federal letter as just another in a long string of conflicts between California and President Trump’s administration.

However, the law in question was signed by President Obama and his Department of Education often sparred with California over the accountability issue before and after the law was enacted.

The federal letter suggests that California rewrite its ESSA plan and resubmit it, thus tossing the ball back into Sacramento’s court and giving EdVoice and others in the Equity Coalition a new opening to press their demands.

Noting that still another lawsuit has been recently filed against the state over accountability, EdVoice’s Lucia said, “Filing parent lawsuits is not a constitutional system of accountability. California is systematically ignoring the academic failures of 60 percent of its school-aged children. There will be long-lasting consequences to the individual children, families, communities, economy and government budgets if Sacramento doesn’t take this as a serious wakeup call.”

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