School & District Management Opinion

2018 Election Will Rock California Education

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — June 19, 2017 7 min read
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The 2018 California election will toast the end of a political era in education and give rise to a bloody battle to define public schooling’s future.

The Jerry Brown governorship will come to an end, and with it his unparalleled mastery of the Golden State’s political process. In his four terms in office, spread over four decades, he has shed his 1970s enfant terrible reputation to become a shrewd and visionary leader. It is Brown, not Donald J. Trump, who has engaged China’s leaders about climate change and who warns about the danger of thermonuclear war.

Brown’s departure also signals the end of an education era. Michael Kirst, the powerful state school board president who engineered massive changes in the state’s education system, will likely exit when Brown does. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson bumps up against term limits and will leave office. Carl Cohn, the executive director of the California Collaborative for Education Excellence has also confirmed that he will leave his post next year.

As these leaders retire, there’s a bloody fight brewing to determine who will lead the state’s education system and in what direction.

L.A. Board Election Redux

On the surface it will look like a repeat of the recent Los Angeles Unified School District board election, which pitted union-backed candidates against charter school advocates. Charter advocates won, in a shameful $144 a vote negative campaign.

Nick Melvoin, one of the victors, has already endorsed Marshall Tuck who is running for state superintendent. Tuck, who has never held public office, had a strong showing in 2014, attracting editorial page endorsements with a “the schools are failing campaign.” Expect a repeat. “We’ve learned to live with failing schools,” Tuck was quoted in a CALmatters article. “Our party has not prioritized education the way we need to.”

Tuck has been politically aligned with former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaragosa, who is running for governor, in part on an education reform platform. Both appeared at Melvoin’s post-election victory party.

Tuck will face Assemblyman Tony Thurmond (D-Richmond), who has thus far headlined his campaign as “opposing efforts by President Trump and Betsy DeVos to defund our education system.” The California Federation of Teachers has already endorsed him, and I suspect that a California Teachers Association statement of support is in the wings. No other candidates have announced.

A Referendum on Brown-Era Reforms

The campaigns won’t be framed this way—expect a lot of platitudes about “for kids” or “for innovation"—but it will be a referendum on the reforms of the Brown, Kirst, Torlakson era.

It would be hard to overstate how radical and substantive these reforms are. California is trying to turn its public education system away from the path it has followed for half a century. It’s trying to reverse decades of Sacramento centric education and move power to schools and districts. It’s trying to rebuild local democracy and make it more inclusive. It’s trying to replace “test and punish” accountability, built almost entirely on negative incentives, with a capacity building system that nourishes green shoots of innovation and creativity. It’s trying to improve performance and equity at the same time.

Brown’s announced strategy of subsidiarity signaled a retreat from state centralized control and the intent to move decisions to the school and district level. Subsidiarity was the keystone of his 2013 state-of-the-state speech, and it paved the way for what has been called the most radical school finance legislation in four decades.

California’s Local Control Funding formula eliminated scores of programs that targeted dollars to specific students for specific needs. Instead, districts where students come from low-income families, those with English learners, and those with foster children get a substantial funding boost. Districts with concentrations of these students got additional funds.

The financing law is only one part of a very complex system built around a new, tough, system of state standards. More than 15 interlocking reforms wheel around the state’s standards, including curriculum, accountability, assessments, teacher preparation and recruitment, English learners, and special education.

‘California Way’ Endangered

California’s reforms also shifted from a blame-and-punish strategy to a build-and-support policy of capacity building and continuous improvement. Torlakson calls it “The California Way,” which “rests on the belief that educators want to excel, trusts them to improve when given the proper supports, and provides local schools and districts with the leeway and flexibility to deploy resources so they can improve.”

The state first gained notice nationally with its opposition to Obama Administration testing and teacher evaluation policies. The state was an education outlier then, with Kirst remarking, “We can’t fire our way to Finland.” Backing away from tripwire issues, such as linking test scores and teacher evaluation, allowed Torlakson and others to form and keep a working coalition of the state’s educational interest groups including employee unions and their historic enemies the school administrators and school boards associations. Task forces advising Torlakson produced two iterations of Blueprint documents, each with specific policy objectives. Another broad based task force created an accountability framework.

Reforms Vulnerable for Three Reasons

The 2018 election makes these reforms vulnerable for at least three reasons:

The shield of Jerry Brown’s veto pen will be removed. Brown vetoed 15% of the bills that the Democrat controlled legislature sent him in 2016. He’s been a stalwart defender of the existing education coalition. In support of the state’s new multiple measure accountability system, he nixed a bill authored by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) to place more emphasis on test scores. He’s also reined in the legislature’s instincts to litter the statute books with pet projects.

Implementation is long; trust is short. All the structures put in place during the last eight years still have several years before they are fully implemented and the hoped for improvements become apparent. Implementation of policy ideas is far more important and difficult than legislating them.

State board president Kirst counsels “persistence, patience, and humility,” adding “It’s going to take a long time to do what we are trying to do...and we don’t know how they are going to work out.” And California Teachers Association president Eric Heins emphasized the long-range nature of the education coalition’s effort saying, “Building trust and relationships takes time.” But trust is in short supply.

Both choice advocates and civil rights guardians are pushing for a more detailed accounting of how funds are spent and accountability measures that produce a list of failing schools. Last week, Public Advocates filed a complaint against the Long Beach Unified School District accusing it of misappropriating $41-million, something the district strongly denies. And commentators allege that Los Angeles and other districts statewide are skirting the law and question whether the entire Brown administration investment in equity has been misspent.

It will not take much pressure to effectively recreate the categorically funded, test-score driven system that The California Way has tried to leave behind. School administrators—being highly risk adverse—will demand a list of state-approved expense categories and direct their employees to create programs within them. As they have in the past, they will reverse engineer the tests that feed accountability measures and build the daily experiences of students around those things that count on the tests. The worst of the No Child Left Behind world could be quickly rebuilt entirely by accident.

Schools still lack capacity. Schools are making a good faith effort to implement the new finance and accountability laws, a recent research report finds. Instruction and business offices are working more closely together. But for the most part, schools lack the capacity to analyze the connection between inputs and results in terms of student achievement on tests and other measures. Parents, who are supposed to be the roots of grassroots accountability, are not very engaged.

External help is still in formation. The new California Collaborative for Educational Excellence is still getting organized and working with a pilot group of schools. Its executive director, Carl Cohn, frequently says that Long Beach, where he was superintendent, didn’t start to improve its measured outcomes for five years.

Neither organizations nor money are born smart. It takes extensive education to understand how to best use money, and it takes skill to communicate this to stakeholders, each of whom will have their pet projects. As the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is showing, organizations can learn how to improve, but it takes time and disciplined inquiry.

Advantage to Challengers

These vulnerabilities, and the diffuse dissatisfaction over the Brown-era education reforms, give the self-styled reformers a campaign advantage in 2018. In a campaign driven by positive platitudes and negative advertising, slow steady improvement doesn’t motivate voters.

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.