Law & Courts Opinion

4-16-14 Annotating the News: Tragedy, Trials, and Budgets

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — April 18, 2014 3 min read
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Tragedy eclipsed politics this week as school communities and families in Southern California mourned the fiery deaths of five students, three counselors, and two drivers. The bus on which the students were riding was returning from a campus visit to Humboldt State University when it collided head-on with a heavy truck that had lost control and crossed the median strip on Interstate 5 north of Sacramento.

These were kids who “did all the right things” and for whom the system was working. All the students were Latinos from working class communities. All had been encouraged to go to college by their teachers, peers, and counselors.

Vigils and memorials were held across the region.

Meanwhile, a research report on Latino college enrollment and completion paints a complicated picture of Californians. On one hand, though Latinos comprise the largest ethnic/racial group in the state (now surpassing “non-Hispanic whites”), California is below the national average in the proportion of Latinos over age 25 with bachelors degrees. On the other hand, graduation rates among Latinos are rising.

In part, average educational attainment levels among California’s Latino adults are low because so many Latinos immigrated to the state as adults with limited education. As these first-generation immigrant Latinos grow older, and their native born children work their way through the state’s public schools and colleges, overall educational attainment among Latinos is rising. The state’s labor force grows more skilled, and its citizenry becomes better educated.

The Vergara trial arguments about California’s teacher tenure and job protection laws are over, and the judge is now working on his ruling. We have closely followed this case, brought by “Students Matter,” an advocacy organization funded by Silicon Valley millionaire David Welch. In essence, the plaintiffs argue that the state’s laws on teacher tenure and job protections violate the constitutional rights of the state’s children to equal, quality educations.

The case continues to draw wide attention and diverse views about evidence and implications. And in an interesting twist, Gov. Jerry Brown and Democrats in the California legislature are working on a teacher dismissal bill that may render moot a major issue in the case. If the laws at the center of the suit change, what happens to the lawsuit? We’re not lawyers, so we invite your comments.

We also continue to watch implementation of sweeping school finance reforms enacted in 2013. Among many other things, the law required that school districts seek broad public participation in setting local education priorities. That is proving to be just as hard as it sounds, as districts try to get input from communities and organizations outside the usual suspects. School boards and superintendents are cautious, however, reluctant to expose themselves to pressure, conflict, and more uncertainty. Even if the open process doesn’t blow up, how should they reconcile diverse expectations when it comes time to write the local budget?

Another aspect of the reform was to discard the state’s former content standards in favor of the Common Core. Gov. Brown and the state legislature decided to suspend high-stakes state testing to smooth this transition. But at the same time, the state doesn’t want to completely suspend accountability for the year, so the state, districts, and superintendents are improvising.

In what promises to be the beginning of an elementally important budget battle, Gov. Brown is pushing to actually fund the state’s “Rainy Day Fund,” in order to stabilize the state’s wildly fluctuating income streams. Under the Local Control Funding Formula that is debuting this year, school districts depend on stable, predictable income flows in order to plan for more than a few months in advance.

Brown needs some GOP support for his measure because the Democrats, as we reported last week, have lost their super-majority in the legislature. If legislated, the measure will require voter approval in November. Brown gained editorial support from the Los Angeles Times.

By CTK and David Menefee-Libey

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