School Climate & Safety

Ideas for Revamping Calif. Schools Emerge From Study

By Linda Jacobson — October 25, 2007 5 min read
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An improved education data system, stronger pre-K and kindergarten programs, and school spending based more on student needs than on categories of programs are likely to be among the recommendations for an overhaul of California’s school governance and financing systems from a committee appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Ted Mitchell, the chairman of the Committee on Education Excellence, gave a brief preview of the group’s work at a meeting here this month involving educators, researchers, legislative aides, and advocacy-group representatives, all of whom are waiting to see what Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, meant when he said that 2008 would be the “year of education.”

Similar gatherings are also taking place around the state, as the education community prepares for a response to “Getting Down to Facts,” a massive research report released earlier this year that detailed how the state’s once-envied public school system has gotten off track. (“California’s Schooling Is ‘Broken’,” March 21, 2007.)

High on the list is likely to be a recommended change in a school financing system that now directs much of its spending into certain categories of programs, rather than a so-called “weighted” system that provides different funding levels for students with various needs, such as low-income students, those with disabilities, and English-language learners.

The school districts of San Francisco, the state of Hawaii, and Edmonton, Alberta, in Canada have received attention for adopting such weighted finance systems. Under those systems, principals are also given more control over budgeting decisions at their schools.

“We are looking at ways to reduce categorical programs,” Mr. Mitchell hinted. “We are looking very hard at weighting systems around the country.”

Weighing Changes

Ideas for overhauling how California schools are financed and governed:

• Build a “world-class” data and information system.

• Strengthen teaching and leadership.

• Pass a fair and flexible funding system that rewards success.

• Streamline governance and strengthen accountability.

• Build a strong foundation in pre-K and kindergarten.

SOURCE: Ted Mitchell, Chairman, Committee on Education Excellence

Such a redesign could be a practical alternative given California’s fiscal concerns, according to one analyst.

“Because this moves financing to the school level, you can do this with [existing funding],” Lisa Snell, the director of education and child welfare at the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, a free-market-oriented think tank, said during one of the sessions here.

Others say that weighted formulas aren’t the best or only solution for a system that has been described by Gov. Schwarzenegger as broken, and by Mr. Mitchell as “compliance-driven, rather than results-driven.”

Policymakers still need to know how much it costs for a student to be successful, said Lawrence O. Picus, a school finance expert and a professor of education at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, who was involved in the “Getting Down to Facts” project. He said the state might need to spend as much as $85 billion a year to see improved achievement. The fiscal 2008 budget for K-12 education in the state is close to $60 billion.

“Pupil weights are a way to distribute funds,” said Mr. Picus. “But it’s not that different from [rearranging] lounge chairs on the Titanic.”

‘Fixing All the Ills’

Experts prepared a wealth of proposals—a total of 47 papers—for the Oct. 19 gathering in the state capital, which was organized by EdSource, a Mountain View, Calif.-based organization that works to explain complex education issues in the state.

But people here also talked about just how much can be accomplished when little growth is expected in the state budget next year, and when the governor already is in the midst of revamping the state’s health-care system.

“I think it’s real hard to conceive of fixing all the ills in one year,” said Rick Simpson, the deputy chief of staff for state Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez.

Still, school district officials and researchers are urging the state to complete work on implementing a longitudinal data system that would allow for better understanding of how students are faring and which programs are working.

“We need an information system that helps people do the right thing,” Mr. Mitchell of the Committee on Education Excellence said.

Concerns over student privacy and fears that more data will be used to punish teachers and schools are among the reasons that California hasn’t made more progress on better linking state and local data systems, said Russlyn Ali, the executive director of the Education Trust-West, a nonprofit research and advocacy group that focuses on closing student-achievement gaps.

While the EdSource meeting brought together some 350 of the most influential players in education policy in the state, it was just one of many activities taking place for those pitching ideas before the next legislative session, which convenes in January.

In September, for example, a group called Parents and Students for Great Schools—a coalition of advocacy organizations—released a survey of low-income families with children in public schools, covering almost 450 ZIP codes in 25 counties throughout the state.

Ninety-four percent of the parents and 86 percent of the students surveyed said they expected policymakers to act on the information in the “Getting Down to Facts” studies, and almost three-fourths of the parents said they would be willing to pay higher taxes if the money were used more efficiently to improve schools. Low graduation rates, underprepared teachers, and overcrowded classrooms were some of the issues respondents said they were most concerned about.

During a Sept. 25 conference call by Parents and Students for Great School and Public Advocates, a law firm, Sylvester McKinley, a senior at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, described his school as looking “more like a prison than a school.”

“There are big cockroaches on campus—like the ones on ‘Fear Factor,’ ” he said.

But there was no consensus among the parents and students responding to the study on how to fix a system that has been described as dysfunctional.

While more than 90 percent of those surveyed said they want more spending, they were split on how the money should be allocated. About half said they prefer a formula in which schools receive more money for students with greater needs. Another 40 percent said they would rather have schools receive an equal amount of money, regardless of students’ needs.

‘Everything Is Top-Down’

California Secretary of Education David Long, the governor’s chief education adviser, also has been working to gather input from educators, administrators, and other groups around the state in preparation for next year. So far, participants in what was called a series of “community leader meetings” haven’t shied away from saying what they think.

“The concern is that everything is top-down,” said Darline P. Robles, the superintendent of the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

Simplifying the funding formula and granting districts more flexibility over budget decisions are among the top priorities, she said.

“We’re not opposed to categorical [funding], because we know some students can get lost in the system,” Ms. Robles said. “But it needs to be a system that you can explain to the public.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2007 edition of Education Week

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