Federal Opinion

California: A K-12 Education Outlier

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — February 25, 2014 7 min read
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Conventional political wisdom suggests that California’s education policies should be firmly in harness with those of President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. After all, the state has an iconic Democratic governor, no Republican statewide officeholders, and both houses of the state legislature are under Democratic control.

Instead, there is vigorous disagreement. Rather than leading with accountability, California starts with changing instruction and building capacity. Rather than constructing educational politics around a war between “reformers” and educators, it acknowledges multiple, diverse interests and the need for compromise and collaboration.

California’s divergence is no red-state aversion to the federal government; nor is it sticker shock at the price of new K-12 assessments. It’s an aversion to the Race to the Top mentality, and the embrace of a deeply held alternative view of what drives improvement in public education. “No high-performing country or state has limited their reform efforts to this narrowly conceived approach,” wrote former California state Superintendent Bill Honig a few years ago.

The pointy edge of dispute is teacher assessment. “We can’t fire our way to Finland,” says Michael Kirst, who chairs the California board of education. The state has refused to sign on to the test-score-accountability provisions of the federal agenda. In response, Secretary Duncan has twice, or thrice (depending on who’s counting), rejected California’s Race to the Top applications and has refused a statewide waiver of No Child Left Behind Act requirements.

In its most glaring departure from Duncanism, the state legislature has terminated its old statewide testing system altogether and suspended its single indicator system, formerly the Academic Performance Index, for at least two years. The intent is to allow California’s schools and teachers to implement the new Common Core State Standards without tests tied to defunct standards. Secretary Duncan has said he can’t “in good conscience” approve such a deviation, and his department is threatening to withhold federal funds. Negotiations are ongoing, but a determination is due any day from the department.


So, where is all of this coming from? One view is that the state has been, again, captured by its interest groups, particularly the California Teachers Association, which has fought every effort to link teacher evaluations to student test scores. The CTA heavily endorsed Gov. Jerry Brown and state schools chief Tom Torlakson, and, in this version of the story, is reaping its rewards.

Another is that grouchy old men are temporarily holding the state captive. Gov. Brown and Mr. Kirst are both in their mid-70s, as are many of their advisers. (Full disclosure: I fall into the same age range.) Only the refusal of these septuagenarians to retire gracefully prevents the state from applying student-test data to teacher evaluations, firing the bottom 10 percent, starting a statewide student data-tracking system, and letting the market rule.

But without discounting either the power of interest groups or the truculence of age, it may be possible that California is creating a different way forward. From a practical policy standpoint, it has chosen to lay down heavy bets in two areas, while subordinating policies on the Race to the Top checklist.

First, it has bet big on decentralization and rebuilding the capacity of its 1,000 recession-battered school districts, which have suffered nearly a 14 percent inflation-adjusted per-student funding loss since 2008. And they weren’t in great shape to begin with. Over decades, California has slid near the bottom of cost-adjusted state rankings. It was 49th in Education Week‘s latest Quality Counts ranking. However, in the wake of the state’s economic recovery, schools face almost-unprecedented opportunity. There is a promise of a lot more money.

The state has coupled the revival of its financial fortunes with a revolutionary change in how it spends its education dollars. For the first time in four decades, substantial fiscal control is being returned to school districts through what is called the local-control funding formula. This new finance formula weights state allocations according to student need.

Districts with low-income students, English-language learners, and foster youths receive 20 percent more in the current version of the formula. Those where 55 percent of students fall into one or more high-needs categories will get an additional grant. Special education students will continue to receive additional funding, as before.

Politically, local-control funding is an investment in rebuilding trust, and that effort turns the education policy of the last four decades on its head. As the economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote in a New York Times op-ed essay in December, “It is trust, more than money, that makes the world go round.”

The state has coupled the revival of its financial fortunes with a revolutionary change in how it spends its education dollars."

California schools get spending flexibility, but each district is required to devise an accountability system that links resources and educational outcomes on eight indicators. Enforcement depends on local government, teacher activists, and parents to make it work. “We used to rely on the state to have regulations and auditors. Now we’re relying on community local action,” Mr. Kirst asserts.

Local-control funding discards the fragmented categorical system that characterized California’s school funding for the past 40 years. Following equity lawsuits and the Proposition 13 property-tax-limitation initiative passed in 1978, the state became public education’s paymaster. And the legislature sliced and diced almost a third of state funds into as many as 124 categorical programs, each with its own accounting rules, regulations, and burdensome paperwork. None of these rules required schools to show how these expenses were linked to student outcomes. The district’s major accountability to the state was exercised through program audits called “coordinated compliance reviews,” which tested the fidelity of recordkeeping and largely ignored student achievement.

Second, in addition to the state’s change in its funding system, California has gone all in on the common core. It hasn’t hedged its bet. The legislature sent $1.25 billion to school districts to implement the common standards this school year and next. And the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which will be piloted this spring, will largely replace the state’s old assessments.

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Coming Soon: Charles Taylor Kerchner will explore the policies and politics of the Golden State in his new blog starting in March.

There is no state master plan for implementation—a shocking oversight to some—and districts are responding with substantial variation. But there is a strong collaborative effort between districts and state leaders. The state has produced helpful frameworks in both English/language arts and math,the two common-core subject areas.

The state is also the bulwark of the Smarter Balanced testing consortium, and after its federal financial support concludes, the consortium’s efforts will be housed at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In supporting the common core, the state agrees with Secretary Duncan and differs substantively with its detractors. California has had a long and largely positive experience with its own standards, beginning in the 1980s, and the emphasis on teaching for understanding and application. Much of this got lost in the No Child Left Behind testing era, and the teachers in the state whom I’ve talked to welcome the idea of fewer and deeper standards.

By focusing on the common core and local control and accountability, California is intentionally sidelining aspects of the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top agenda. Mr. Kirst has been a policy scholar for nearly half a century, and he is acutely aware of the problem of “policy overload"—trying to do too many things at once. When that happens, he remarked to me recently, schools flip into compliance mode and don’t change in the fundamental ways that matter. “So, it’s a laundry list Duncan gives you, not common core,” he says. “That is the essence of the problem.”

While California is a long way from fully articulating its vision of the future, it follows a tradition of enticing difference. As the journalist Carey McWilliams wrote in California: The Great Exception nearly seven decades ago, “California, the giant adolescent, has been outgrowing its governmental clothes, now, for a hundred years.” Until its recent malaise, the state has always thought of itself as the inventive edge of the continent. It’s beginning to think that way again.

A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 2014 edition of Education Week as California: The Great Exception


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