Calif. Districts Seek $1 Billion to Fund Test Mandate

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 17, 2015 6 min read
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A push by four California school districts to increase state funding for standardized assessments could complicate the state’s rollout of the common core and aligned tests, as well as provide an early challenge for a revamped school finance system that is not yet two years old.

The Plumas, Porterville, Santa Ana, and Vallejo unified districts, along with the Plumas County Office of Education, are seeking at least $1 billion in additional annual statewide funding for the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress. That system includes new tests that are aligned to the Common Core State Standards. The districts argue that since the state requires these assessments, it must reimburse the districts’ costs for administering them.

The California Commission on State Mandates, which hears claims of unfunded state mandates, has tentatively scheduled a May 29 hearing on the matter.

Finding the Funds

The districts are using a so-called “mandate test claim” under the state constitution in an attempt to show that the state mandate has imposed a new program or higher level of service at the local level, and has concurrently imposed higher costs on districts. If the claim is successful, the state mandate commission determines a statewide funding amount to satisfy the claim, and state government subsequently decides how to appropriate that funding.

Several other states, including Massachusetts, Missouri, and New Jersey, have similar statutory or constitutional provisions.

In their mandate test claim, the districts argue that the costs associated with the state testing regimen range from reporting test results to parents to new devices for students.

The claim covers fiscal years 2014 and 2015.

In a Jan. 28 statement provided by the California School Boards Association, which is supporting the districts’ claim, Santa Ana Superintendent Rick Miller said the various costs associated with common-core-aligned tests designed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium would come to about $12 million in his district. In the full claim filed last month, the district reported that over two years, it would spend $8.1 million on new electronic devices, and $3.3 million in bandwidth and other infrastructure improvements associated with the state’s mandated tests.

Also in the statement, John Snavely, the superintendent of the 13,500-student Porterville Unified district, said: “By not providing us with the necessary resources to implement the [tests], we are forced to forgo funding for other important programs.”

If the state commission finds in favor of the districts, it would then specify the amount owed by the state to satisfy the testing mandate. California lawmakers, in turn, would decide how to appropriate that funding.

Josh Daniels, an attorney for the school boards association, said because of the timing of the hearing and uncertainty about when a decision will be made, the association is telling districts not to assume that any mandate reimbursement would take place in fiscal 2016.

“It would be fantastic if the governor were to recognize the constitutional obligations and address it in his May revise,” said Mr. Daniels, referring to the revised fiscal 2016 budget plan that Gov. Jerry Brown is due to release in May. But he added that since the revised budget is expected to come out before the commission holds its hearing on the districts’ claim, “I don’t know if that is likely.”

A Complicated Answer

Richard Zeiger, the chief deputy superintendent of the California education department, said it isn’t unusual for California districts to file such claims.

While Mr. Zeiger didn’t fundamentally dispute the districts’ claim in this case, he did note that the state has provided support to districts for general implementation of the common core. Over the last two budgets signed by Gov. Brown, a Democrat, the state has set aside more than $1.5 billion intended to help districts implement the standards. In theory, some of that money could have been used by districts to pay for the associated cost of common-core testing.

“Has the state paid for it? Has it paid for it adequately? ... The answer to that is going to be complicated,” Mr. Zeiger said, adding that because it can take years to settle such mandate claims by districts, “the pressure kind of works both ways.”

Due to the recent shift to online assessments, such as the Smarter Balanced tests, Mr. Zeiger said the state has not updated its estimate of how much state assessments actually cost districts to administer.

The creation of a new state funding stream for tests in response to the districts’ mandate claim could run contrary to the intent of the state’s Local Control Funding Formula. Lawmakers approved that funding system in 2013 and eliminated many of the state’s “categorical programs” that dedicated funds to certain state-required K-12 programs. The formula also gave districts more control over the use of state funds.

While California has a particularly robust process for dealing with mandate claims, several states have similar statutes or sections of their state constitutions that districts have put to use, although they vary greatly in scope and purpose.

A 2012 American Law Reports review found that districts in Massachusetts, Missouri, and New Hampshire have sued for more state funding for mandates. One prominent case, Adair v. Michigan, related to data districts were required to send to the state. That case began in 2000 and was not settled by the Michigan Supreme Court until 2010, when the justices found in favor of plaintiff Daniel Adair, a taxpayer, along with several school districts. Three years later, Mr. Adair and 465 districts filed a new suit over the method and adequacy of the additional state K-12 appropriation made in response to the 2010 court ruling. Last December, the state’s highest court dismissed the plaintiffs’ latest suit.

However, such statutes and portions of state constitutions aren’t limited to school districts, and it is unclear how often districts seek such remedies. For example, the website for New Jersey’s Council on Local Mandates reports that its last opinion, in response to a complaint by the Allamuchy Township school board over an anti-bullying law, was issued in September 2011. The council reports no pending cases.

And just because a state has a law on the books regarding mandates doesn’t mean that schools are automatically eligible to make such claims. In Colorado, the constitution says that K-12 education isn’t subject to requirements for state mandates. In Louisiana, claims of unfunded mandates can’t be related to the state’s school funding formula, or for school and district accountability.

A Potentially Powerful Tool?

In addition to districts’ fiscal concerns about the short- and long-term costs associated with testing, political concerns could also drive new claims of unfunded mandates, said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has studied such laws. District officials opposed to the common core, for example, could seize on such provisions as a tool in the battle.

“They’re out looking for ways of stopping common core, and undermining the implementation of the common core,” Mr. Loveless said. “I think we might see some common-core opponents using these statutes in the future to try to slow down implementation of the common core or undermine it.”

Michael Griffith, a senior school finance analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, noted that even if districts were successful in their claims that standardized assessments systems represented unfunded mandates, state legislators would likely respond by shifting money around in their K-12 budgets, but not actually increasing their overall spending levels on public schools. Districts anticipating this general reaction, he said, are therefore likely to decide not to bother with mandate claims.

“It’s a real nebulous thing,” Mr. Griffith said. “You’re just not going to win if you’re the locals.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 18, 2015 edition of Education Week as Calif. Districts Seeking $1 Billion to Fund Testing Mandate


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