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Now for the hard part: implementing school reform

The past year witnessed the passage of legislation presaging historic changes in California’s struggling public school system that could place the state in a leadership position nationally on education reform.

The focus will now be on be on implementation, which will be far more challenging.

Almost exactly a year ago, Gov. Jerry Brown presented the latest version of his plan to dramatically reform California’s antiquated system of funding its schools. Its centerpiece: targeting one out of six of state education dollars at low-income students and English learners.  Together, they make up at least 60 percent of California’s 6.2 million public school children.  A modified version of Brown’s plan was adopted by the State Legislature in July, and districts are now subject to the law.

The law will also move California to a more comprehensive way of evaluating school and school district performance.  Instead of relying on a single score – the Academic Performance Index, or API, schools will not be evaluated on multiple measures, including ones such as “student engagement,” “school climate,” “parent involvement,” and how successfully students emerge prepared for college and/or careers.

Gov. Brown is also trying to reverse the major dynamic of education reform over the past decade, in which education policies were dictated by Washington or Sacramento. Instead of this top-down approach to reform, Brown wants to give local school districts renewed powers to make their own decisions about how state funds will be spent.

More than any other state, California has committed dedicated resources – $1.25 billion – toward ensuring that the Common Core standards are successfully implemented. The standards place less emphasis on skills measured on multiple choice test and focus more on “deeper learning” skills that students need to succeed in college and careers.

Full implementation of these reforms will be a multi-year process. This spring students for the first time will take field tests developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium based on the Common Core standards.  By July, school districts will be required to draw up a Local Control and Accountability Plan to show how they will spend additional state funds to improve student outcomes – and on what basis they will be held accountable for doing so.

One challenge affecting implementation is that the state’s education system is still recovering from five years of brutal budget cuts that have eroded key education programs and services, and that many districts will have difficulty marshaling the resources, energy, and enthusiasm they will need to successfully implement a new generation of reforms.

Another wild card is California’s unpredictable initiative process. Just before Christmas, a consultant to Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst organization submitted a ballot measure for review by the California attorney general that would radically revise the current system of teacher tenure, and base it on teacher evaluations linked to student test scores. If such a measure got enough signatures and it were placed on the November 2014 ballot, it would be a hugely divisive one, with vigorous opposition from the California Teachers Association, and result in massive spending that could detract from focusing on implementing the reforms already on the table.

Meanwhile, there is a danger that the state’s multiple education constituencies will end up fighting amongst themselves and with the State Board of Education over details of how the school financing law should be implemented.   Numerous organizations that supported Gov. Brown’s reforms have already accused the State Board of Education for violating the spirit of the financing law by not prescribing precisely enough how funds intended for low-income students and English learners should be spent by schools or districts. At the same time, district administrators are mostly insisting on maintaining maximum flexibility in how to spend those funds. The upcoming State Board meeting in Sacramento (on Jan. 15-16) promises to be one of the most heated in years as the State Board moves to enact regulations to implement the reforms the Legislature and Gov. Brown has set in motion.

All this could make implementing reforms in a cohesive way even more difficult. What makes the task even more formidable is that the reforms must be carried out on a massive scale — in a state with nearly 1000 school districts of varying sizes and demographics, against the backdrop of a decentralized U.S. system of education where states have a limited capacity to dictate what happens at a local level.

California now has the opportunity to lead the nation in shifting the reform debate in new directions – by deemphasizing the importance of annual standardized tests, by giving more decision making powers to local school districts in place of mandates from Sacramento and Washington, and by targeting more education funds on students at greatest risk of failure.

But as the HealthCare.gov travails have demonstrated, the rollout of ambitious reforms can founder on the shores of reality without sufficient coordination, cooperation, and, most crucially, buy-in from core constituencies.   That is the outcome that will have to be avoided in the months ahead.   After a decade of reforms that did not come close to fulfilling their promises, making these reforms work should be the priority of all those who care about the future of public education in a state serving one in eight of all public school children in the United States.

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