Law & Courts Opinion

Potentially Game-Changing Month Ahead for California

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — May 29, 2014 3 min read
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By the Fourth of July, California may be in playing a whole new educational ball game. Four big decisions are due in June or by and the first week of July: an election, a court ruling, experimental student testing, and the first evidence of baby steps toward local funding control and accountability.

The June 3 primary election pits incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson against former charter school executive Marshall Tuck and longshot candidate Lydia Gutierrez. We’ve been paying close attention to this contest, and have just posted interviews with Tuck and Torlakson. In recent years, the California Democratic leadership—including Torklason—have bucked national trends in their approach to school reform, dumping state tests and going all in on the Common Core and giving school districts far more control over budgets. In contrast, Marshall Tuck—also a Democrat—is running to align California more closely with corporate reformers nationally, reducing the role of teacher unions in policy and pressing test-based accountability. Long-shot Lydia Gutierrez has gained more attention recently, and participated in a three-person debate this week sponsored by the PTA and the League of Women Voters. Despite the importance of the contest, Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters fears a record low turnout of voters.

Some of the same issues arise in the Vergara lawsuit, which will enter its next stage soon when Judge Rolf Treu issues his ruling. (He has till July 9). In the suit, which went to trial in January, Beatriz Vergara and eight other school children are suing to overturn the state’s teacher tenure and job protection laws. Represented in court by former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore Olson and a team of star attorneys not accustomed to losing cases, the plaintiffs argue that those laws play out in classrooms and schools in ways that violate students’ rights to access equal education under the California constitution. Olsen and his colleagues are working with “Students Matter,” an advocacy organization funded by Silicon Valley millionaire David Welch. State teacher unions organized the defense.

The next month will also mark another milestone in the implementation of California’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) law, enacted last summer. The law dramatically changed the way schools are funded in the state, consolidating dozens of specialized “categorical” pots of money into a simpler system. Under the law’s weighted student formula, districts and charter schools get a set amount of money for each student, supplemented if the student is an English Learner, comes from a low-income family, or lives in foster care. Districts and charter schools, in turn, are required to seek input from parents and community members in developing Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs) for how to spend the money. Districts must approve their LCAPs by July 1. EdSource and the California Endowment have been following the process in some districts, and we hope to learn more.

Finally, June 6 will be the final day for districts to administer the pilot versions of tests for the new Common Core State Standards. California is one of 21 states that have joined in the Smarter Balanced coalition that has devised one of the two competing testing systems. As Paul Warren and Patrick Murphy at the Public Policy Institute of California have reported, the standards and testing will require a lot of work by the state’s public education system. California has so far not been part of the backlash seen in places like Indiana and Oklahoma in response to the tests, but there has also not been wide media coverage here. Test developers required teachers and schools to agree to confidentiality pledges, so it may take a while for views about the tests to bubble up.

(David Menefee-Libey is a professor of politics at Pomona College.)

Corrected 6/5/14

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