EdWatch 2014: Top 12 education issues

January 6, 2014
The new year is ushering in some big changes in public education, from a revamp of school funding to unchartered territory in student testing and new educational standards. Here’s a glance at issues to watch this year that will define California education in 2014.

The new year is ushering in some big changes in public education, from a revamp of school funding to uncharted territory in student testing and new educational standards. Here’s a glance at issues to watch this year that will define California education in 2014.

Budget battles

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Gov. Jerry Brown will present next year’s state budget on Friday, with a first glimpse at how he’ll be looking to divvy up revenues from the state’s continuing economic recovery. If his numbers mesh with the Legislative Analyst’s projections, K-12 schools can expect a whopper of a funding increase: upward of 14 percent, depending on how Brown’s budgeters do the math on Proposition 98, the main source of education funding.

After a half-decade of budget cuts, education groups and legislators will be hungry to lay claim to an additional $8 billion to $12 billion. Brown’s biggest dilemma will be how to divvy up the increase for school districts between one-time appropriations and ongoing operating budgets committing future spending. Since 2014-15 will be the first year in which districts must comply with new regulations under the Local Control Funding Formula, Brown might be inclined to give a big boost in per pupil spending. That might ease some of the tensions between districts and advocates for high-needs students who have different priorities for the new money.

But there are also legitimate demands for one-time spending:

Complicating the picture, Assembly Democrats are calling for creating a second year of universal kindergarten, a big expense.

More money sure beats less, but finding agreement won’t get any easier.

– John Fensterwald

Funding change in action

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The on-the-ground implementation of Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature education finance law will accelerate in the next six months as school districts formulate their first Local Control and Accountability Plans.

Due July 1, the plans will demonstrate how districts are complying with the spirit and letter of the new law, known as the Local Control Funding Formula. The law, signed by Brown in July 2013, provides additional money to districts that serve high-needs students, gives districts greater control over how they spend state funds and calls for greater collaboration in the budget process between districts and parents.

Later this month, the State Board of Education will adopt an accountability plan template to guide districts in setting annual goals, outlining specific plans to improve student achievement, implementing the Common Core State Standards, and improving school climate and other areas that are among eight priorities in the funding law.

At the same time, the State Board of Education is expected to approve crucial regulations governing how much latitude districts will have in spending extra dollars that the funding formula allocates for low-income students, children learning English and foster youth.

In the coming months, districts will continue – or in some cases, begin – holding public meetings to inform parents and the community about the new funding formula and accountability plans.

The local school board must adopt a district’s accountability plan at a public meeting by July 1 and then submit the plan for review to the county office of education. The district budget cannot be authorized until the county office of education approves the local plan.

– Jane Meredith Adams

Common Core

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California school districts have been implementing the Common Core State Standards at differing speeds, depth and quality since the State Board of Education adopted the new voluntary national standards for math and English language arts in 2010.

The state hasn’t imposed any specific timeline for making sure Common Core in every California class, but there is a de facto deadline – in spring 2015 students will begin taking the new assessment that is aligned to the standards. But this year marks a key milestone: students will begin taking practice tests aligned to the new standards in math and English. The computerized test will provide a gauge of how prepared districts are to handle the assessment.

California is moving more quickly this year to help districts. The state budget includes $1.25 billion for teacher professional development and to upgrade technology. In November, the State Board of Education approved the math frameworks, which districts need to guide them in rewriting curriculum and lesson plans. The English language arts frameworks just went out for review and could be adopted by May.

Half the state’s districts reported having a formal implementation plan, according to a survey released in November, while another 45 percent said they’re only in the planning stages – or less.

For California and the 44 other states that have adopted them, the Common Core standards require significant changes in what students learn and how they learn it. There will be less memorization and more efforts at deeper learning, more hands-on activities and less lecturing.

– Kathryn Baron

The changing face of testing

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It might be less confusing to figure out a Rubik’s Cube than to make sense of what’s happening with student testing in California this year.

Assembly Bill 484, by Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, replaces most California Standards Tests with new exams aligned to the Common Core State Standards. For this year, however, those tests, developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, will only be pilot exams for students in grades 3-8 and 11. Students won’t be graded and they’ll only be tested in math and English language arts.

Some policy makers warn that the state isn’t ready even for a pilot test, because the pilot test isn’t a No. 2 pencil and paper fill in the bubble exam – it’s computer-based only. Although a state survey found that a majority of school districts and charter schools say they are tech-ready for the tests, up to 40 percent are worried about their ability to make it work.

Other state tests for English learners and students with disabilities will still be administered this year, but their futures are unclear. High school students will have to take the California High School Exit Exam, however, there is talk of replacing it at a later date, possibly with a modified version of the Smarter Balanced exam.

– Kathryn Baron

New voter initiatives on the horizon

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If they get the Attorney General’s clearance and enough signatures to qualify for the ballot, education reformers are betting they can persuade voters in November to pass major initiatives affecting teachers and taxes. Expect the campaigns to be contentious and expensive.

The proposals would:

Other possible ballot measures could get heated, including one to repeal a law that allows transgender students to use bathroom facilities and participate in sports teams consistent with their gender identity; and another to impose additional disclosure requirements on charter schools and ban for-profit charter schools.

– John Fensterwald

CORE district reforms

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Last August, eight California districts that formed the California Office to Reform Education received what the state didn’t get: flexibility in Title I spending and a waiver from penalties from the No Child Left Behind law in exchange for commitments for a “holistic” approach to school improvement that Secretary Arne Duncan found intriguing.

The waiver received national attention and opened Duncan to criticism from state superintendents who said the waiver set a dangerous precedent and could undermine state authority.

Over the next 12 months, the CORE districts will begin following through on its promises, said CORE Executive Director Rick Miller. The eight unified districts include Los Angeles, Long Beach and Fresno – three of the state’s largest – Oakland, Sanger, Santa Ana, San Francisco and Sacramento City.

Pieces of the CORE rollout to watch include:

Despite continued opposition by most CORE districts’ teachers unions’ to an evaluation system they didn’t create, Miller said he fully expects that this summer Duncan will approve extending the waiver for another year.

– John Fensterwald

Early education

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Spurred on by federal legislation, some California lawmakers are beginning to push for an expansion of programs, possibly including universal preschool, for the state’s youngest children.

It’s been nearly a year since President Barack Obama announced his plan to create a federally funded program to help states provide universal preschool. California’s current program would have a long way to go to meet the proposed standards for participation in the federal program, but that hasn’t stopped education advocates and policymakers at the local and state level from laying the groundwork for a potentially vast expansion of the state’s early childhood programs.

School districts like Fresno Unified have significantly expanded their public preschool programs in the past year, and will continue that expansion in 2014. And other districts are considering following suit: a plan is in the works to put universal preschool on the ballot in Santa Clara County, according to officials in the county’s education department.

Assembly Democrats signaled their support for such moves with a December proposal to make transitional kindergarten, an academic program offered by public schools for some 4-year-olds, available to all children in the state.

It is unclear where the money for any expansion would come from. State child care and preschool funds were reduced by $1 billion during the recession and so far only $55 million has been restored. The state’s Republicans have been far less warm to the idea of funding public preschool than Democrats and Gov. Jerry Brown has so far remained silent on the issue.

– Lillian Mongeau

Teacher salaries

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After years of larger class sizes and pay cuts, teachers are primed for pay raises, setting the stage for contract negotiations to come. Most districts agree in principle, and some are settling for modest increases of 2 to 5 percent, the vice president of the California Teachers Association told the Los Angeles Times.

But in other districts, an expectations gap has opened up. From Redwood City to Sweetwater to Mount Diablo, teachers and school districts either have reached an impasse in negotiations or are headed toward one.

The complexities of the new Local Control Funding Formula are contributing to confusion. District’s situation will differ, depending on whether they’ve dipped into or built up reserves the past few years and whether they’re poised to receive a lot or a little under the new funding system. It awards extra dollars for low-income students and English learners.

On Jan. 16, the State Board will adopt regulations outlining what districts can do with money targeted under the LCFF for high-needs students. Since those regs could affect future bargaining but won’t take effect until July 1, savvy union negotiators will be pressing for long-term contracts now. Advocates for high-needs students are wary. The deals that are struck bear watching.

– John Fensterwald

Teacher tenure challenge

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An upcoming court case stands to dramatically change the rules governing teacher hiring and retention in California.

Vergara v. California, filed on behalf of nine public school students, challenges the laws establishing tenure, dismissal and lay-off policies for K-12 teachers as unconstitutional. Lawyers for the case argue that tenure is too easily granted, dismissal for poor classroom performance too expensive and difficult for many districts to pursue, and lay-off-policies are much too concerned with teacher experience and too little concerned with teacher quality.

Current laws deny school leaders “the flexibility to make teacher employment decisions driven by the needs of their students,” reads the plaintiffs’ complaint, filed in May 2012.

Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu cleared the way for the case in December when he ruled against a motion to dismiss the case filed by the state’s largest unions, the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers.

Theodore B. Olson, the lawyer who brought the case against the state claiming that Proposition 8, the voter initiative banning gay marriage, was unconstitutional, is one of three lawyers for the plaintiffs on the case. The legal team’s funding comes from Students Matter, a non-profit started by David Welch, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and education activist.

The trial, expected to last four weeks, will begin Jan. 27 in Los Angeles County.

– Lillian Mongeau

Student discipline

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With new requirements under the Local Control Funding Formula asking districts to pay closer attention to issues such as “school climate” and “social emotional learning,” how campuses handle misbehaving students will be at the forefront this year.

Assembly Bill 420, introduced by Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, will keep alternative disciplinary approaches on the legislative agenda. The bill is the second attempt by Dickinson to eliminate the use of “willful defiance” of school authorities as a reason to expel students and limit its use in suspensions. “Willful defiance” and disruption of school activities is seen as a broad, subjective category that has been used disproportionately to punish African American students.

State Superintendent Tom Torlakson has called for more funds for professional training in this area. And many districts are beginning to implement Positive Behavioral and Intervention Support systems and restorative justice practices in their efforts to create a positive school culture, keep students in school, and meet requirements under their Local Control and Accountability Plans to improve school climate. Some districts, such as Los Angeles Unified and San Francisco Unified, are moving forward on their own to restrict the use of willful defiance. Other districts may follow their lead.

The new approach to discipline dovetails with growing efforts to explicitly teach students emotional and social skills, such as how to respectfully disagree with each other, how to acknowledge another person’s feelings and how to calm down. In addition, some schools are starting to train teachers in “trauma-informed” teaching methods that aim to provide teachers with the skills to better manage students suffering from repeated exposure to violence, abuse and neglect.

– Sue Frey and Jane Meredith Adams

Special education review

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Gov. Jerry Brown did not include state funding for special education in the new state finance system, the Local Control Funding Formula. One reason is that the current funding system for special education is already complex; incorporating it in the LCFF would have required mammoth work. Another reason is that Brown and the State Board of Education wanted to take a deep and separate look at special education in its own right.

That analysis is happening now through the Special Education Task Force, a 33-member group co-chaired by State Board of Education member Carl Cohn and Fred Weintraub, the court-appointed monitor of special education for Los Angeles Unified. During the next 10 months, the task force will look for model services inside and outside California, including successful early intervention programs; examine statewide performance data; review teacher preparation programs with an eye toward cross-training of special education and classroom teachers; consider how to integrate the Common Core standards with special education; and tackle funding implications.

The task force will make policy recommendations in late fall; before then, organizers have promised to seek comments from the public through forums and its web site.

– John Fensterwald

Teacher credentialing

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California’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing set an ambitious and bountiful agenda for 2014, but its budget isn’t cooperating.

In June, the Commission approved dozens of reforms to update and strengthen the requirements for becoming a teacher in a Common Core classroom. Some of those will be delayed because credential fees fund the Commission and there’s been a sharp drop in the number of new teachers in California.

A top priority, already under way, is updating what’s taught in the teacher preparation programs at colleges and universities. Next up is changing the assessments to make sure they actually test what’s in the new standards. Common Core changes not only what students learn, but also how teachers teach and the current credential exams are still aligned to the old standards.

The commission, which accredits teacher preparation programs at colleges in addition to credentialing teachers, is also piloting some surveys to get a better picture of the quality of schools of education. They want to know whether recent graduates feel prepared to teach and whether the districts that hire them agree.

Also in the works are plans to update administrator credential programs and assessments as well as standards for special education teachers. The Commission will also have to revamp standards stemming from a new law that took effect Jan. 1 that allows teacher preparation programs to expand their programs from a maximum of one year to two years.

– Kathryn Baron

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