Why school reform will continue to be so hard

Peter Schrag

Peter Schrag

Listening to even the best people in California’s school reform discussions doesn’t leave much clarity about the direction our money-starved education system should go or much confidence that things will get perceptibly better any time soon.

Many of those good people know what’s needed. It’s just that they don’t all know the same thing, or don’t know it at the same time. That much at least was apparent once again at a forum in Sacramento last week on school finance sponsored by PPIC, the Public Policy Institute of California.

What they agreed on was that the fixes of the last 30 or 40 years – what state School Board President Michael Kirst called “the historical accretion” of programs – wasn’t working. It has become, State Sen. Joe Simitian said, “the Winchester Mystery House” of school finance, rooms added willy-nilly to solve one or another problem.

Neither the policymakers nor the reformers are entirely – or maybe even mostly – to blame. In a state that now ranks in the bottom 10 nationwide in school spending, and among the lowest in the ratio of teachers, counselors, nurses, and librarians per pupil, there’s a long list of suspects. When a questioner at the PPIC forum asked what we mostly needed, someone stage-whispered, “more, more, more.”

But in a culture that must rank among the world’s leaders in anti-intellectualism, and a society whose citizens can’t make up their own minds about what they really want from their schools – about standards, about testing, about social promotion, about evolution, and about a thousand other things – money is hardly the only problem. “Money matters,” Simitian said, “but it matters more if you spend it wisely.”

The current fashion, at least at the State Board and in the office of Gov. Jerry Brown, has two main elements:

  • Replacing the plethora of categorical state funding streams – the biggest is class size reduction – with a “weighted student funding formula” where every district gets a basic amount per student and additional money for each low-income student and every English learner – plus more for districts with high concentrations of such students. When some districts and other school interests complained that the formula was treating them unfairly, the formula was revised to reduce the extra funding that would be provided for poor and immigrant kids. Here again, the driver wasn’t any assessment of educational need, it was pure politics.
  •  More local control combined with local accountability under which the state would replace its detailed monitoring of input with measures of outputs.


But the problem, as Catherine Lhamon, a veteran civil rights lawyer at the Los Angeles-based Public Counsel Law Center, pointed out, is how to guarantee that the locals provide adequate resources – good teachers, books, decent facilities, and all the rest – to schools with the poorest children and others without the political clout to secure them.

Waiting until a district fails to deliver in measured student achievement is to consign yet another generation to failure. Just a few days ago, we learned that the state had reneged on the promises it made years ago when it settled another suit brought on behalf of poor and minority kids.

The fact that the governor has been blocking the further development of the state’s educational data system doesn’t do much for confidence in either the ability or the willingness of the state to hold the locals accountable. Nor is there yet any clear idea of what the state would do when the locals don’t perform. We’ve never known before, and we don’t know now.

Making school improvement still more complicated – for schools and teachers, for kids, for parents – is the shift to the national Common Core standards and the new testing system that comes with them. As a long-term pedagogical principle, Common Core, with its shift from fact-based and formulaic learning to understanding, analysis, and creativity, is long overdue. But the state has committed to making the transition within the next year or two, at a time when school spending is being cut, teachers are being laid off, and the teaching force is already demoralized. And the state expects the locals to buy the necessary materials. If this is not a sick joke, it’s close to it.

The “historical accretion” that Kirst talks about is the result of the long-term failure of local districts, responsive as they always are to pressure from influential parents and other interest groups, unions among them, to allocate funds accordingly. It’s how we built that Winchester Mystery House.

Given the special distrust of state government, local control always makes for an appealing political slogan. But we have a long history in which local control favored the privileged and short-changed poor and minority kids: Southern school segregation, school funding, the drawing of school attendance zones, the assignment of teachers to the nicest, brightest, newest schools, and a host of other decisions.

Maybe this time it will be different, but there’s little yet in place that provides much confidence that it will. Jerry Brown has never been averse to the hair shirt. But almost always, it’s the poorest kids who will have to wear the hairiest shirts.

P.S. Given all that, would it be better if we preserved the dismal status quo by passing Gov. Jerry Brown’s inadequate tax hike in November – and thus deferred for maybe five years any chance for anything better? Or would the catastrophe following defeat of Brown’s initiative finally wake the voters up? It’s not an easy decision.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report,, where this column first appeared.

For previous commentaries that Peter Schrag wrote for Thoughts on Public Education (TOP-ed.org), go here.

Filed under: Commentary, Data, Local Control Funding Formula, Policy & Finance, School Finance, State Board, State Education Policy

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8 Responses to “Why school reform will continue to be so hard”

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  1. el on Aug 9, 2012 at 1:25 pm08/9/2012 1:25 pm

    • 000

    Bravo, navigio. Many good points.

    I’ll repeat my comment from another article, which is that the first kids to experience California’s class size reduction in Kindergarten graduated from high school in 2010. At the end of the day, it’s how they fare at exit that is important to us, and no one has had time to measure that yet.

  2. navigio on Aug 9, 2012 at 11:42 am08/9/2012 11:42 am

    • 000

    My moment of dismay came earlier; when Simitian was quoted as saying Money matters, but it matters more if you spend it wisely. Generally speaking, that is code for ‘cut funding’. However, just to make sure, I went and watched what was actually said (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCb4YTIBCk4) and he made this statement in the context of trying to bring together the two ‘sides’ of this particular claim, specifically to make sure it remains clear that more resources are absolutely needed and the ‘use wisely’ rhetoric should not be intended to imply otherwise. Unfortunately, that point wasnt made here, and I expect it impacted other readers much as it did me (especially those who didnt follow up on the actual presentation). Also unfortunately, some comments he made later seemed to hint that it may be about cutting funding after all.

    Anyway, the simple reason reform will be so difficult imho is that there is little agreement on what reform actually means or why it is needed. In current political parlance, reform primarily means market principals applied to public education (essentially the further privatization thereof along with the destruction of unions). For others reform means actually adhering to our laws and trying to follow through on some of the attempts to make things more equitable and transparent (which have mostly failed, often due to being derailed by a simple lack of funding or desire). Note that the first point the moderator made was that there is a universal belief in a need for reform. While I believe many people believe something needs to change, the term ‘reform’ has pretty specific implications that are not altogether objective.

    Perhaps the strongest evidence that the discussion cannot be objective was the use of the getting down to facts study as a starting point for the discussion. While I may be in the minority here, I am not convinced that the getting down to facts research is in fact objective and non-partisan (part of PPIC’s byline, I might add). Perhaps even worse, the context for the forum seemed to be somewhat pre-ordained by the PPIC presentation. For example, the intro speaker (from PPIC), made the point that California teachers have higher salaries than teachers in all but one other state and that this is the reason we have such large class sizes. She then went on to make the point that California is a large, expensive state (by expensive, she seemed to be referring to labor costs) and that New York, which is ‘another large, expensive state’ can maintain low class sizes because it funds education at nearly double what California does. While one could interpret this as an objective statement that there is a direct tradeoff to be decided on by voters/legislature between teacher salaries and class sizes given a fixed level of spending, it came off more as an indictment of teacher pay.

    I also found it curious that, in the intro presentation by PPIC, the current funding system was described as ‘restrictive’ and that Brown’s weighted funding formula would achieve ‘really bringing a lot of the decision-making down to the district’. Again, this seemed to be a claim of support for the idea (not that its a bad one), but as many have pointed out, that is far from universally believed. To his credit, the moderator later asked the panel to explain the justification for the weighted funding concept. On a related note, I would also like to counter this idea that we simply need to give flexibility some time to work. We have gotten flexibility explicitly because we have been cutting funding and there is a desire to have districts make those hard decisions instead of the state. While local decision-making is probably preferable as a general theme, I think its disingenuous to imply that the flexibility exists for its sake alone. More importantly, I dont think the result of flexibility will be any improvement (due to it happening in the context of cuts), rather it will be a way to satisfy local communities that they at least have some control over how to decimate their programs (little consolation if you ask me).

    A few points from the video that I’d like to highlight since its unlikely most people will watch it all.

    When asked about the urgency of ‘reform’, Catherine Llamon used an example of inequity as her answer. She talked about how the high school in beverly hills that serves 2400 kids has 8 counselors, a mini observatory and labs. In their middle schools they have full-time art teachers at each middle school, choral music, instrumental music. Last February, Sacramento Unified testified that they might have to cut middle and high school counselors across the district altogether. Home to school transportation and all of their libraries as well. I love this kind of argument because I believe we tend to dismiss the resources available in rich districts and/or private schools simply because we’ve gotten so used to these inequities (heck, its beverly hills, right?). But these examples should make us ponder whether such resources are in fact valuable for every child if they are valuable for the children of the rich. Every time I hear an affluent ‘reformer’ claim that money doesnt matter, I want to ask them where their child goes to school and what kind of resources s/he has. The disparity in our own district between public and private schools is horrendous (and ugly–a term Catherine repeatedly (and justifiably) used to describe our funding decision dynamic).

    Two noteworthy, albeit out of context comments from Kirst:
    – things are worse now than after prop 13.
    – idea behind the weighted formula was to simplify the system and provide a rational basis for the funding. But he also implied that the other types of ‘reform’ were simply seen as too complex to bother with.

    Kirst also said a couple times that he was baffled at the silence on the part of constituents or communities on various issues. To be honest, I think silence is completely understandable. Firstly, very few people understand our education system or its funding mechanism even remotely close enough to be able to engage in rigorous debate about it. I guess its possible that when one has spent many years inside the education system, its easy to forget that very few people lie awake at night reading edsource today or the minutes from state board meetings or education committees. Even then, due to the patterns of inequity we have in our society, it is usually those who are least represented or least powerful who tend to get the short of the stick most often. I mean heck, there is a huge number of public education parents in this state who are not even allowed to vote, even if they were to have to resources to do so.

    There was one point where Simitian asked the audience for a show of hands on who thinks class size reduction is popular with students and parents. Some people raised their hands. Then he asked for a show of hands on who believes its absolutely the best way to spend the next dollar on the margin in terms of improving pupil performance. No one appears to have raised their hand. Then he went on to point out that at its peak it was a billion and a half dollar expense. This was apparently a way to show that we are not effectively spending our money since we are apparently spending it on things that are only popular and not proven effective.

    I have a bunch of problems with this argument. This first is simply with how he worded the question. By using the term ‘absolutely’, he requires not only that any evidence for the effectiveness of CSR is conclusive and has been studied in detail by the audience, but also that people are aware of and understand (conclusive) studies on any alternative measures. And specifically show them to be more effective than CSR. Personally, I think existing CSR research absolutely shows there is a benefit to CSR. But of course that research does not ‘cost-effectiveness compare’ itself with other methods. He also should have asked for a show of hands on how many people knew of an absolutely better way to spend that money (my assumption is most people would simply rather not spend the money at all). I also wonder whether he would dismiss the effectiveness of targeted intervention at a very low student teacher ratio like that we provide our english learners and/or low performing kids. The concept is similar. I was also dismayed that he immediately made the point that it cost a billion and half dollars. Note that he didnt ask whether CSR was effective, rather whether it was the most effective. To me this just means ‘its too expensive’. (Although $1.5B sounds like a lot of money, we cut state and local funding by almost $8B between 07-08 and 09-10 alone). The ironic thing is that when we argue for more efficient use of funds, the assumption is that with equal spending, we’d get greater benefit. But its not even the case that we have equal spending. In some cases, we are even reducing funding, which, through reduced programs or staffing, would reduce performance. Do we even know where those two trajectories cross (ie how to separate out the influence of competing factors)?

    Following a bit on the ‘effectiveness’ mantra, here’s a fun mental exercise. Lets assume for a second that it costs $100,000 to remove an ineffective tenured teacher (the numbers vary significantly depending on whose rhetoric you listen to, but even if its higher now, it could probably be reduced by economies of scale). For $1.5B we could remove a full 5% of California’s teaching force. So I guess a question for the legislator is, would that be more effective than CSR? And if so–and if we happen to believe one of the authors of the supposedly objective getting down to facts that this is our biggest problem–why are we not doing this? Could it possibly be that the real goal is to destroy unions? Or maybe that there arent as many ‘bad teachers’ as we would be led to believe? Or that it really doesnt cost this much and the reason we have any bad teachers at all is because of administrators who are unable to do the jobs they are being paid to do?

    A very important point was made by Simitian when the moderator pointed out that moving funding local seems to counter the historical evidence that local control is probably the least equitable. He said, ‘So….the question is, how to you protect against mis-use or abuse of funds in a thousand K through 12 school districts if you’re really only concerned about a potential problem in 2, 5 or 10% of those districts?’ While Catherine questioned the exact percentage of offenders (in this case of inequity), the broader point here for me is that we often try to impose systemic measures to address perceived issues at some small set of schools or districts (or teachers). Its probably easy to argue this is cheapest, but its probably not the most cost-effective. Especially if it actually hurts the majority of students. As an example, I question whether unions or tenure or seniority are really a ‘problem’ for our highest performing schools and districts (which clearly also have those things).

    An important theme in the discussion surrounded the notion of ‘better marketing’, ie that there is a political necessity to prove we will spend the money wisely since there is currently little trust in government at any level to do this wisely. I happen to agree, however, one reason there is no trust is that districts cannot afford to be transparent to the extent that would help make that case (I would even question whether the desire exists if the money were there, and this is a discussion that needs to be had). On the one hand, it was repeatedly said that we simply havent done a good enough job in tracking data that we could use to evaluate schools and programs the way we should be doing (um, whoops?). But on the other hand, some feel that we actually have sufficient levels of transparency available today. One example of the latter was the comment by the Superintendent that implied that our performance data was sufficient because ‘[CST results have been published for years and are even in the hands of real estate agents].’ Anyone who has bothered to read my rants know I strongly disagree.

    As an example, I have seen schools/districts where the special education rate for african americans is 3 to 4 times that of whites and asians in certain grades. But when we report API and even CST proficiency rates, we do not disaggregate special education scores by race. I once saw the calculation data for API at the high school level that had a 400 point (!) difference in API between SWD and non-SWD african americans. Yet when we publish API, we provide one number for all african americans. Then compare that with our one number for whites. It is patently absurd to do this when you have disparities in classification rates that are factors of 3 or 4. Similar issues exist with other ethnicities and/or english learners, SED, etc. Most real estate agents in my area share brochures from private schools or demographic data with their customers, not links to CDE’s website or SARCs, which would be misleading due to some of the lack of disaggregation mentioned above..

    Following a bit on this theme, perhaps the most dismaying thing about this forum was that there seemed to be agreement that we do not have the transparency, accountability and data systems that even allow us to make decisions about adequacy and effectiveness. And worse, that we dont seem like we even want that.

    Sorry for the ‘tude today, but its triple digits down here and since the district shortened the school year for our classified staff, I dont have anyone at the district to bother yet..

  3. Mary Pecci on Aug 7, 2012 at 3:42 pm08/7/2012 3:42 pm

    • 000

    Dear Peter Schrag,

    In my booklet, “5 Steps to Save Our Schools (…and our Children) – through the lens of 50 years in the system,” I focus in on the critical cause of failure, which you just give a wink to – i.e, Inadequate Teaching Methods. In this booklet, I explain the why of failure and the how to solve the problem in our 4 major basic subjects: Reading, Math, Spelling, Written Language, and the necessity, in our multicultural school population, to assign children by skill levels in each subject and not by age levels.

    It’s incredulous how thiese factors are so overlooked as the major cause of the problem. I’ll be happy to send you a gratis copy of this booklet at your request.

    For the record, if someone WERE to come up with a solution for reading disability and dyslexia, it would be near impossible to get the message out to the public or get it implemented in the schools. Why? Because the competition with funds and influence would do everything in their power to undermine it and keep it out of the mainstream.

  4. Marian Devincenzi on Aug 5, 2012 at 4:42 pm08/5/2012 4:42 pm

    • 000

    I read Kathryn Baron’s article mentioned above.

    KIDS COUNT Report: Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation. (Special Report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation)

    It states that children need to master reading by the end of third grade.

    It is my opinion that the easiest method to learn to read is NOT being used. For years I have asked for a PILOT STUDY to be done. In my opinion the best beginning reading teacher is Mary Pecci. She can be contacted at:


    Her reading series is now complete. Her Pre-Primers should be used in kindergarten and the Primer and the 1-1 reader in first grade. Per Mary, a teacher in Mexico used her Pre-Primers and was thrilled that his students were learning to speak English at the same time that his students were learning to read. (Only the Pre-Primers were published at that time when the teacher wrote her.)

    I am looking forward to attending a meeting, being sponsored by Jim Beall on August 25 in Campbell. Tom Torlakson, State Superintendent of Public Instruction will be the main speaker.

    Marian Devincenzi

  5. Gary Ravani on Aug 1, 2012 at 4:21 pm08/1/2012 4:21 pm

    • 000

    Mr. Muench makes an interesting point about the country to our south having “extreme'” wealth distribution issues. How true. In fact Mexico ranks as #18 in the entire world in inequality of income distribution (the GINI index) whereas the US ranks an egalitarian 42nd. Of course this comes from a list of 136 countries so maybe being 42nd isn’t so egalitarian after all. Where Mexico is 118 places from having an equitable income distribution, the US misses by 92 places.

    If you look at the countries indicated as having the most actual egalitarian income distributions you find all of the usual suspects, mostly those Scandinavian social democracies with those sky-high PISA scores but the detestable pinko universal health care systems, seamless social services, and highly paid and highly unionized teachers. Yes, Finland is near the top of the list in equitable income distribution.

    Of course this kind of analysis can be easily dismissed because it comes from a highly suspect, left-wing, source: the Central Intelligence Agency.

    Then within what appears to be a less than egalitarian nation, ie. all of us, we have CA that isn’t doing well in terms of correcting the levels of income disparity. See the article printed here recently by Kathryn Baron: “Educational differences run deep by race, ethnicity, and income in new report.” In fact, in a nation of deep and increasing levels of income disparity CA ranks 41s of the 50 states in dealing with the effects of poverty on children. Of course, the most direct way of eliminating the effects of poverty is to eliminate, as much as possible, poverty itself. (See Finland, Denmark, Norway, et al here.)

    To Bea: See an article in the previous incarnation of this page (TopED), I am not sure how to access the archives, on the effects of “flexibility,” that is, returning categorical dollars to control of districts. That article indicate that there have been negative effects on vulnerable populations. In fact, in large part, categorical programs were put in place to protect categories of students who lack the political clout to protect themselves. “Local control” can (and often does) mean inequitable outcomes subject to local political pressures. It’s why we have the federal government enforce most civil rights law. Localities can’t be trusted to do it.

  6. Bea on Aug 1, 2012 at 8:22 am08/1/2012 8:22 am

    • 000

    The “Winchester Mystery House” of public education in California has little to do with local control. The voluminous, contradictory, arcane and removed policies of the California Education Code are the handiwork of our state legislators. Term limits have accelerated their piecemeal, short-sighted rush to pass bills with little regard to the long haul or the impact in our local communities.

    The greatest challenge for local school boards is how to stay within the letter of the law while trying to do what is right for our kids in our communities, each with its own unique challenges.

    It’s hard to pass judgement on the efficacy of local control when it has essentially been made impossible by state policy until the rather recent sweeping of categorical funds. So yes, let’s loosen the strings to the money and maintain accountability. Give it some time, please.

  7. Paul Muench on Jul 31, 2012 at 7:17 pm07/31/2012 7:17 pm

    • 000

    Maybe someone should write the “Guns, Germs, and Steel” of public education and blame it on geography. California is so large it’s not surprising its hard to get so many people to agree. And California’s proximity to countries with extreme wealth distribution induce the same problem in California. Any other ideas?

  8. Gary Ravani on Jul 31, 2012 at 6:04 pm07/31/2012 6:04 pm

    • 000

    Typically, I have great respect for what Schrag writes and his thoughtful analysis of complex topics. That would go for this article right up to the point where he states: “The “historical accretion” that Kirst talks about is the result of the long-term failure of local districts, responsive as they always are to pressure from influential parents and other interest groups, unions among them, to allocate funds accordingly.”

    My issue, of course, is where he gratuitously includes “unions” as one of the sinners in allocating funds inequitably. There are many instances where districts allocate funds to different schools based on the political influence of parents (i.e., those who vote in school board elections) which can result in significant resource disparities between schools in the same district.

    It doesn’t take thinking at a very deep level to understand that this also results in inequities of resources for teachers to be able to do their jobs. Unions have a legal obligation to see that members are not treated disparately. Unions are subject, if they do not do this, to lawsuits from their members for what is called “lack of fair representation.”

    Unions, then, are actually some of the biggest obstacles to the inequitable distribution of resources within districts. There is a caveat: unions can drive equity in resources when they have the power. Most often they don’t. (Contrary to the popular narrative about the “powerful teachers’ union.” ) Unions have the ability to exert influence on issues within the “scope of bargaining.” There are many areas in school budgets that do not fall within the scope of bargaining.

    Then there is the governor’s proposal for “weighted student funding”. Schrag does do a good job of describing how CA’s overall funding for schools is so starved that one more disruptive element could send a number of districts over the brink. The principle of weighted student funding is sound. In the context of CA’s current budget most “reform” proposals, as Schrag points out, become “sick jokes.”

    Another thing to keep in mind is, yes, currently CA’s spending per child is in the bottom five of the 50 states in weighted dollars putting us slightly ahead of those cradles of civilization Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. However, CA’s school funding per child was still in the bottom ten of the 50 states before the recession.

    We hear a lot of chatter about the “value” of education and its critical importance to the state’s abilities to be internationally competitive. Someone once said,: Stop telling me about your values. Show me your budget and I’ll tell you what your values are.” Look at CA’s school funding budget. Explain the value of education to the state.

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