Districts seeking reimbursement for Common Core test costs

January 29, 2015

Districts say the state should reimburse them for the full cost of buying and replacing computers needed for standardized tests.

The state could be liable for as much as $1 billion per year in costs if a group of school districts succeeds in winning reimbursement for expenses associated with the implementation of computer-based tests in the Common Core and other new state standards.

Four unified districts – Santa Ana, Vallejo, Plumas and Porterville – and the Plumas County Office of Education filed a claim to classify the new tests as state mandates. If the Commission on State Mandates agrees, the state will be required to reimburse all districts statewide seeking to recover costs. The California School Boards Association, which is financing the effort, announced the filing Wednesday.

With Assembly Bill 484, passed in 2013, the Legislature replaced STAR, the testing system for the former state standards, with a new testing regimen called the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress program, or CAASPP. It lays out a timetable for a series of statewide computer-administered assessments, starting this spring with the Smarter Balanced tests on the Common Core State Standards in math and English language arts that all districts must give.

The districts contend that, unlike the old pencil-and-paper tests, the new computer-based tests require districts to buy computers, expand their Internet broadband capacity, install wireless connections, hire additional computer technicians and train other district staff to administer the tests. In its filing, Santa Ana, the biggest of the four districts with about 50,000 students, said it is expecting to spend about $12 million last year and this year combined on devices and bandwidth expansion, including $124,000 on staff time. The district said it has not yet determined training costs. The claim estimates the statewide cost for all districts at $1 billion in 2014-15.

Under the state Constitution, the state must pay for new responsibilities and programs or expanded levels of services that the Legislature requires local governments and districts to provide.

“This new state assessment … requires a computer rather than a pencil,” Santa Ana Unified Superintendent Rick Miller said in a statement. “As a result, we have had to spend millions of dollars in order to administer the test and we will need to continue to make additional expenditures in the future.”

Josh Daniels, an attorney for the California School Boards Association, said the claim is seeking to establish that the state has an obligation to reimburse past and future costs, since districts will have to replace computers, upgrade Internet capacity and continue to pay employee costs associated with the tests. There will also be new tests in coming years for new science and social studies standards, plus new Common Core-aligned tests for English learners and severely disabled students.

“I think Santa Ana and the districts have a strong argument,” said Robert Miyashiro, vice president of School Services of California,  Inc., a consulting company that advises school districts. “The state law creating CAASPP imposed costs on districts.”

H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the Department of Finance, said Thursday that the administration is reviewing the filing and has no comment at this point.

The 2013-14 state budget allotted $1.25 billion to districts – about $200 per student – in one-time money to implement the Common Core standards. Districts could use that funding to train teachers, buy textbooks and purchase or upgrade technology. The Department of Finance, on Gov. Jerry Brown’s behalf, could argue that the $1.25 billion should count toward meeting the state’s CAASPP obligation. The mandates commission would then have to decide, through hearings, whether it was enough to cover districts’ actual testing expenses.

Brown is proposing an additional $1.1 billion in “discretionary” dollars in the 2015-16 budget with the intention that it be put toward Common Core implementation. However, districts could spend the money on any program, undercutting the administration’s possible argument that this funding should count as a mandate offset, Miyashiro said.

Under the state Constitution, the state must pay for new responsibilities and programs or expanded levels of services that the Legislature requires local governments and districts to provide. The state has acknowledged 40 mandated programs for K-12 districts, enabling them to claim the costs of collective bargaining, complying with the open-meetings law, conducting criminal background checks of volunteers and administering the high school exit exam. The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that unpaid pending mandate claims total between $4 billion and $5 billion.

Districts have a choice of documenting their mandated expenses and seeking reimbursement from the state – a lengthy, cumbersome process – or, under the Brown administration, accepting a yearly lump sum called the Education Mandates Block Grant. It is $28 per student for grades K-8 and $54 per student in grades 9-12. Districts complain that the block grant doesn’t cover all of their expenses, but it is an easier way to get at least some money they’re owed.

Miyashiro cautioned that it may take years for the districts involved in this case to see any money. The commission holds lengthy evidentiary proceedings and has a backlog of cases. The seven-member commission also tends to be wary of new claims, Miyashiro said. Its members include the state controller, the state treasurer and the director of the Department of Finance, plus public representatives appointed by the governor.

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