Five years ago, then-Governor Schwarzenegger, then-State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, and the leadership of the Assembly and Senate commissioned a comprehensive summary and analysis of California’s school finance and governance systems. The result was the 23 reports collectively known as the Getting Down to Facts Project (GDTF). A recent PACE report commemorates the fifth anniversary of the project, reviewing what has changed (and what has not) since the reports came out.
Although the specific focus of the GDTF project was finance and governance, the original studies also highlighted a number of problems and inefficiencies in how districts mange personnel (meaning both teachers and administrators). Perhaps one of the most striking facts that people remember from the original studies is how few adults per student there were in California schools. As the chart shows, not much has improved on that front:
However, the problems go well beyond just adult-student ratios. The original GDTF studies noted that in many districts, the way that teachers are hired, trained, evaluated, compensated, and dismissed does little to promote a high-quality teaching force. And in particular, the studies stressed that state policies typically hinder district practices more than help them.
Five years later, not a lot has changed with these issues, at least at the state level. Some of this stagnation can certainly be blamed on the budget crisis (for example, cuts in professional development programs) but many of the necessary reforms are more about changing regulations than providing funding. Although there has been a robust debate at the national level about issues such as value-added performance measures and alternative compensation systems, Sacramento really hasn’t been a big part of that conversation. Race to the Top led to a few bills, such as allowing longitudinal data to be used for teacher evaluations, but that has been pretty much the only legislation over the last five years to make any significant change to teacher policy at the state level; there have been several other attempts, but so far they have all failed.
On the positive side, there is new energy at the Commission on Teacher Credentialing to improve training and teacher preparation, and there have been some innovative things going on outside Sacramento, at individual districts around the state. For example, districts like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the other districts that are part of the California Office to Reform Education (CORE) are experimenting with different ways to support and evaluate teachers. It will be interesting to see whether other districts follow their lead, particularly given the recent ruling in Doe v. Deasy, which supports the argument that the 40-year-old Stull Act requires districts to incorporate student performance into teacher evaluation.
At this point, one of the best things Sacramento can do is simply get out of the way. Although most teacher policy is determined at the district level, one of the key findings of Getting Down to Facts was that state policies could do much more to give districts flexibility at least to try new approaches. Such reforms don’t necessarily require more money; most of the needed changes are regulatory, not budgetary, such as allowing districts more flexibility to bargain over performance-based layoffs. State policy should be aimed at encouraging district experimentation and making that experimentation easier. The state can also help with evaluating those district efforts and disseminating information about them so districts know what other districts are doing, what works, and what doesn’t.
Jennifer Imazeki is a professor of economics at San Diego State University, where she teaches courses in applied microeconomics and conducts research in the economics of K-12 education, including work on school finance reform and adequacy, and teacher labor markets. She has completed studies on adequacy and teacher costs in Wisconsin, Illinois, Florida, Washington, and California. In 2008, she helped California Assemblymember Julia Brownley develop legislation for comprehensive school finance reform, and is currently working on a study of California’s categorical flexibility provisions. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. in economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.