Alison Yin for EdSource Today

2015 promises to be a pivotal year for several major reforms in public education, including the continuing rollout of the Common Core State Standards, the implementation of the state’s new school financing and accountability system, and the administration of the online Smarter Balanced assessments to millions of students this spring. There will be other issues to watch. Here’s our list of the top 10. Let us know what you would have added.

Key decisions on accountability

For more than a decade, the federal No Child Left Behind Law and the statewide Academic Performance Index set measures of school and student performance. The era of NCLB and API is ending; decisions this year in Sacramento and possibly in Washington will determine what will take their place.

NCLB may limp along for another year, although Republicans in charge of education policy in Congress are eager to pass a replacement. Whether to require all students to be tested annually in math and English language arts – a tenet of NCLB – is one of the flashpoints.

There will be action in Sacramento. Karen Stapf Walters, executive director of the State Board of Education, said recently that the Local Control and Accountability Plans, with eight priorities for measuring school and student improvement, not the API, will form the basis for a new accountability system. By October, the state board must determine what the combination of metrics, or “rubrics,” will look like. A new state agency, the California Collaborative for Education Excellence, will use them to determine which schools and districts require outside intervention.

Big funding increases

In 2010 Jerry Brown was elected to his third term as governor as the state faced a $26 billion deficit. After winning re-election in November, the challenge in his fourth term is managing surging revenue from Proposition 98, the formula that determines state education funding.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office is projecting that K-12 schools and community colleges will get $2.3 billion more in revenue for the year ending June 30 than Gov. Jerry Brown built into the state budget. After Brown pays off the final $1 billion in late payments to schools, that will leave $1.3 billion. One option is to put that toward implementing the new Common Core standards or other one-time purposes.

Brown will announce his proposed budget for 2015-16 on Friday. The LAO is predicting potentially as much as $6.4 billion in new money for K-12 schools and community colleges – about a 10 percent increase – above the current level of districts’ operating revenue. Brown’s options may include expediting the timetable to fully fund the Local Control Funding Formula, expanding transitional kindergarten or choosing one-time expenditures rather than ongoing programs.

Standardized tests go online

This year Californians will finally get a sense of the extent to which students have mastered the Common Core State Standards, which the state adopted in 2010. Last year, over 3 million students participated in “field tests” of the Smarter Balanced assessments.  But this spring most of the state’s 3rd through 8th and 11th-grade students will take the full battery of the online assessments in math and English language arts standards. In addition, for the first time the assessments will be “computer adaptive,” meaning that depending on how a student answers a question, they will be asked to answer more difficult or easier questions to more accurately assess a student’s level of proficiency.

It has been difficult to gauge how well students are grasping Common Core concepts since the state has begun implementing its new Local Control Funding Formula, which emphasizes increased local control for school districts. Under local control, districts and charter schools are making more of their own decisions about teacher training, textbooks and technology.

State officials are tempering expectations about how well students will do on the new assessments, stating it will take students – and teachers – years to adjust to the rigor of the new standards. The State Board of Education has not yet decided whether to use this year’s scores to evaluate school performance. Thus far, California has not seen the major resistance to the standards that has roiled politics in some other states.

Regulating local accountability plans

The State Board of Education spent a great deal of time in 2014 revising regulations for districts’ Local Control and Accountability Plans, the school improvement, student achievement and spending plans that school districts wrote for the first time last spring. But nonprofit advocacy groups like Education Trust-West, which recently released an analysis of LCAPs, and Public Advocates say the board didn’t go far enough in forcing districts to document how they will spend the extra dollars that the state’s new school funding system provides for low-income students, foster children and English learners.

Gov. Jerry Brown has made it clear he doesn’t want lawmakers tinkering with the regulations until there’s evidence based on several years’ experience to justify major changes. But the advocates may go to the Legislature anyway. First stop may be Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, the new chairwoman of the Assembly Budget Committee. In testimony last year, she warned the state board to be more demanding of districts, and now she has leverage as a key lawmaker in determining whether Brown gets his spending priorities through the Legislature. “This is a burning issue for me and I don’t plan to let it go,” she said in an interview.

2015 will also reveal the extent to which district accountability plans approved by July 1 last year will be changed for the coming school year. The plans are supposed to be in place for three years, but must be updated annually.

Focus turns to special education

In 2014 the U.S. Department of Education declared that California was one of three states whose special education programs needed intervention because of the lack of significant academic progress for students with special needs. The one-year intervention calls for the state to improve the performance of students with disabilities on achievement tests.

In February, the Statewide Special Education Task Force is to release its recommendations for overhauling the system. One potentially controversial recommendation is expected to call for more training for regular teachers in the needs of special education students and more extensive training in academic subjects for special education teachers, so that both groups of teachers can better work together. In calling for academic improvements in special education, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “I want to stress that the vast majority of students with disabilities do not have significant cognitive disabilities.” In California, about 65 percent of students in special education have learning disabilities or speech impairments, such as dyslexia or stuttering. Ten percent are classified as autistic and 6 percent as intellectually disabled.

What next for Vergara v. California?

In a state ruling with national repercussions, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu in June declared that state laws determining teacher tenure, dismissal and layoffs based on seniority are unconstitutional. Vergara v. The State of California became a major issue in the November race for state superintendent of public instruction. Incumbent State Superintendent Tom Torlakson, who was re-elected, is a defendant in the lawsuit.

Briefs are expected to be filed in the 2nd District Court of Appeal early this year, but the court has no deadline on deciding when to hear the case. Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff, who has unsuccessfully sponsored legislation to extend the time it takes for teachers to earn tenure, said he “may dust off” past bills and try again. “The judge has given a blueprint to look at. We’ve gotten nowhere for a long time,” he said.

Students Matter, the nonprofit that filed the lawsuit, issued a statement warning lawmakers not to adopt “superficial and cursory … legislation that falls short of what Vergara demands.” But Democrats, who dominate the Legislature, may wait for the Court of Appeal’s decision before seriously considering changes to the laws.

Pressures to repeal law on district budget reserves

A new law forcing districts to reduce budget reserves they keep for emergencies won’t take effect for years. But the California Schools Boards Association says its top priority for 2015 is to see the law repealed immediately, “before school districts are led down the road to financial crisis,” association President Josephine Lucey said in a commentary.

The association says smaller district reserves could result in bankruptcies, increased borrowing at higher interest rates and a downgrading of bond ratings.

The Legislature and Gov. Brown inserted the reserves cap into this year’s state budget. Under a complicated formula, the cap requires districts to lower their reserves any year that the state puts money in a new state reserve fund for education that voters passed in November as part of Proposition 2. It will be years before any money flows into the fund, but that hasn’t diminished the association’s eagerness to change the law.

Renewed push for early education

The effort to expand preschool programs is likely to pick up more speed next year. California Early Head Start and other child care programs for infants and young children will receive a piece of the $500 million in federal funds designated for states’ early education programs, plus some of the $330 million that private corporations and foundations have pledged to expand early learning nationwide.

The Legislature has allocated $273 million for early education, which among other programs will expand all-day preschool slots to 11,500  low-income 4-year-olds. The Legislature will also be considering Assembly Bill 47, introduced by incoming Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, which would make California’s full-day preschool program available to all eligible low-income children.

“Whether through legislation or through the budget, the governor and Legislature did make a commitment that all low-income kids have access to preschool,” said Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, an Oakland-based advocacy organization. Supporters of universal preschool will be pushing to make sure legislators keep that commitment, Lempert said.

Measuring career readiness

Ensuring that schools are preparing students for college and careers is a major goal of current reform efforts, yet specific standards outlining how schools should reach that goal have been elusive. Expect much of that to change in 2015. The advisory committee that has been working to develop useable measures of college and career readiness, the Public School Accountability Act Committee, will move from theory to action in coming months as it develops recommendations for holding schools accountable as they prepare students for life after high school graduation. Much of the discussion will likely center on how to measure career readiness skills, which have been less clearly defined than college readiness.

Lawsuit challenges local control

With the creation of the new state education finance system, the Local Control Funding Formula, California has given school districts the authority to spend funds as they see fit. But does local control absolve the California Department of Education of its responsibility under the state Constitution to ensure equal educational opportunity?

Rulings this year in the class action lawsuit Cruz v. California will address what the state is required, or not required, to do about disruptive conditions in eight high-poverty schools where students allegedly are being denied significant amounts of mandated instructional time. State Board of Education President Michael Kirst, an architect of the new funding formula, and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson have indicated that the state will fight the lawsuit.


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  1. el 2 years ago2 years ago

    I am glad to hear CSBA has made repeal of the reserve limit a top priority. I'm all for sunshine and local discussion of the purpose of reserves and how large they should be, but that whole rule seemed like a petulant act by people who don't like talking to each other. Each district has its own circumstances and uncertainty in funding and expenditures and it's hard to imagine a better candidate for local control … Read More

    I am glad to hear CSBA has made repeal of the reserve limit a top priority. I’m all for sunshine and local discussion of the purpose of reserves and how large they should be, but that whole rule seemed like a petulant act by people who don’t like talking to each other. Each district has its own circumstances and uncertainty in funding and expenditures and it’s hard to imagine a better candidate for local control than the reserve percentage.

    Replies

    • Gary Ravani 2 years ago2 years ago

      You know, El, if you found out the huge amounts that some districts are holding in "contingency reserves" you might well be appalled. It is obvious that some districts made draconian cuts to personnel and services that were not absolutely necessary during the double whammy of the finical sector driven economic crisis compounded by CA's historical underfunding of schools. Yes, severe cuts were necessary under the conditions, but some went too far. And they are … Read More

      You know, El, if you found out the huge amounts that some districts are holding in “contingency reserves” you might well be appalled. It is obvious that some districts made draconian cuts to personnel and services that were not absolutely necessary during the double whammy of the finical sector driven economic crisis compounded by CA’s historical underfunding of schools. Yes, severe cuts were necessary under the conditions, but some went too far. And they are sitting on that money rather than promptly rebuilding program and returning compensation to district personnel. There is a tendency on the part of district financial people to be “hoarders,” and they influence local boards to be also. It’s understandable, in a sense, because they have to constantly deal with CA’s school funding fiasco but, ultimately, they are not bankers. Building a huge reserve fund to roll around in like Scrooge McDuck may ease their nerves, but those dollars should be going to provide the best education program possible and the sooner the better.

      • el 2 years ago2 years ago

        I know in some cases they were very high, at levels I do consider appalling. But, these numbers are disclosed and disclosable; the elected school board approved them; the community and staff has the opportunity to push back and say they're not acceptable. If the numbers are being hidden, let's talk about how to put sunshine on them. My experience is in a small district, and in the past four years there has been tremendous volatility … Read More

        I know in some cases they were very high, at levels I do consider appalling. But, these numbers are disclosed and disclosable; the elected school board approved them; the community and staff has the opportunity to push back and say they’re not acceptable. If the numbers are being hidden, let’s talk about how to put sunshine on them.

        My experience is in a small district, and in the past four years there has been tremendous volatility in the income projections. Transportation was going away. Transportation wasn’t going away. The state would say it might arbitrarily slash the base grant or defer a payment. We had to set our spending plan by June but they were threatening to take back funds the following January, after we’d already run a semester. Families move in, families move out. Our district was lucky: we had the equivalent of winning something like 10 rolls of the dice in a row, and most of the uncertainty ended up in our favor. Those reserves are being spent now, not in a single binge but over time. They never got to the 50% or 100% that I know some districts inexplicably have, but still, “normal,” intentional reserves are well in excess of what this law would allow.

        10% of an annual budget is only one month of expenses. In a district with a $4m budget, that’s only $400k, not a lot in absolute cash. A bad day for building maintenance could chew right through that, taking you below your legally mandated reserve.

        The answer to those districts with indecently high reserves is not to straitjacket everyone else. The answer is to tackle the specific problem in those districts head on and solve it, like grownups.

      • SD Parent 2 years ago2 years ago

        There are plenty of good reasons that school districts hold onto some reserves, not the least of which is the long history of volatility in year-to-year education funding from the state. Those districts that had substantial reserves weathered the recession, and the state's reduced education funding, much better than those that didn't. And most recently, the state gave districts the bulk of the responsibility for the unfunded liability in CalSTRS, which will likely … Read More

        There are plenty of good reasons that school districts hold onto some reserves, not the least of which is the long history of volatility in year-to-year education funding from the state. Those districts that had substantial reserves weathered the recession, and the state’s reduced education funding, much better than those that didn’t. And most recently, the state gave districts the bulk of the responsibility for the unfunded liability in CalSTRS, which will likely challenge many districts that do not have significant reserves (and push some into outright insolvency).

        San Diego Unified has held nothing but the absolute minimum in reserves every year, and it is still struggling to balance its budget. (It’s still in qualified status, for those who follow interim reports.) SDUSD is forecasting deficits of over $80 million annually for at least the next two years, is currently trying to negotiate with its teachers’ union to allow K-3 class sizes to remain high (rather than “move toward” 1:24 as mandated by LCFF) as one cost-saving measure, and has not brought back any of the student services or programs that were cut over the past six years.

        The idea that the state would mandate that other districts in CA should use the same budgeting practices is crazy. If the state wants to institute reserve limits, make them reasonable. And while they’re at it, make sure that the district reserves go to restoring student services and programs, not just to increasing employee compensation (which SDUSD has done, even while deficit spending).

        • el 2 years ago2 years ago

          By comparison, our district which kept higher reserves has been able to keep small class sizes, in some cases by deficit spending. Yes, you want your money to go to the kids you have now, but you also want your money to go into creating stability for your programs, so you're not adding and scrubbing them every year because 10 kids move in (+$100k) and then 10 kids move out (-$100k). I realize your frustration with … Read More

          By comparison, our district which kept higher reserves has been able to keep small class sizes, in some cases by deficit spending. Yes, you want your money to go to the kids you have now, but you also want your money to go into creating stability for your programs, so you’re not adding and scrubbing them every year because 10 kids move in (+$100k) and then 10 kids move out (-$100k).

          I realize your frustration with employee compensation, but again, this is very much dependent on the history and situation of the local district. The highest paying districts pay more than twice what the lowest paying districts offer. If you’re one of those lower paying districts, or if you’re otherwise not competitive to retain or recruit staff, then spending money employee compensation is often indeed the best use of freed up money. Clarity and sunshine and debate, rather than restrictions, are best whenever possible. There are ~ 1,000 districts across the state and their problems can be quite different.

  2. Teacher62 2 years ago2 years ago

    One reason special education students have not done well is because many districts have started mainstreaming them into general education classes with two teachers, a special education teacher and a general education teacher. Here is the problem. Many schools did not properly prepare either one of the teachers for co-teaching. No collaborative time was given, and many special education teachers have been relegated to being assistance. When the special education teacher tries to tell the … Read More

    One reason special education students have not done well is because many districts have started mainstreaming them into general education classes with two teachers, a special education teacher and a general education teacher. Here is the problem. Many schools did not properly prepare either one of the teachers for co-teaching. No collaborative time was given, and many special education teachers have been relegated to being assistance. When the special education teacher tries to tell the general education teacher different strategies and accommodations for the special education students many times the general education teacher has not listened. General education teachers think they are better teachers because they usually have a little more content knowledge, but I have found in my experience with co-teaching that they lack the skills to reach every student. Also, many of the general education students have severe learning deficits, and I find that I have to help them as well. General education teachers do need more training, and they can learn a lot from special education teachers who have more education in teaching skills, and strategies to teach students with learning difficulties. Also, just as every Special Education teacher had to be certified to teach students with autism, so should every general education teacher.

  3. Sayitok 2 years ago2 years ago

    And what about the Frederich’s (sp?) lawsuit?

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 2 years ago2 years ago

      Great question, Sayitok. You are referring to Friedrichs v the California Teachers Association, the lawsuit challenging mandatory union dues that I wrote about in September The law firm for the plaintiffs, who include teacher Rebecca Friedrichs, reported in November that a 3-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had granted an expedited affirmation of the lower court's ruling in the case. That means that the lawyers now can ask the … Read More

      Great question, Sayitok. You are referring to Friedrichs v the California Teachers Association, the lawsuit challenging mandatory union dues that I wrote about in September
      The law firm for the plaintiffs, who include teacher Rebecca Friedrichs, reported in November that a 3-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had granted an expedited affirmation of the lower court’s ruling in the case. That means that the lawyers now can ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, which is what they wanted. If that High Court does agree to take the case next fall, then Friedrichs will be a late entry into the Top 10 – and pass Vergara as the biggest case of the decade to affect teachers’ employment rights.

      • Don 2 years ago2 years ago

        John, Vergara and Freidrichs could have a synergistic effect on education. Both have the ability to transform the landscape regardless as to which is more potent, but together the effect could be profound and perhaps devastating. Depending upon what replaces those statutes, if anything, I could imagine teachers might be less inclined to join a union if given a choice in an era in which unions have less job protections to offer. That said, I'm … Read More

        John, Vergara and Freidrichs could have a synergistic effect on education. Both have the ability to transform the landscape regardless as to which is more potent, but together the effect could be profound and perhaps devastating. Depending upon what replaces those statutes, if anything, I could imagine teachers might be less inclined to join a union if given a choice in an era in which unions have less job protections to offer. That said, I’m for some significant union reform, but eviscerating the teaching unions is not going to help advance the profession. In the end, if teachers are untouchable regardless of their quality, students lose and talk about the level of teacher ineffectiveness has downplayed the problem. My experience in the profession and in public education in general tells me at least 20% of teachers lack good instructional skills, not 1% to 3%, and that they cause a significant drag on student achievement, particularly for students that struggle. Perhaps, that is why an abstract in the Yale Law Journal found that unions may actually increase the achievement gap.

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