A safe New Year prediction: EdSource writers won’t sit around Monday mornings wondering if there’s anything to write about. Especially because it is an election year, 2016 will be interesting and intense. Here are nine big issues to follow in 2016, with my predictions about whether anything will change during the year. The scale ranges from 1 to 5 “Fensterwald Faces”, with 1 meaning no chance, and 5 meaning highly likely.
In the courts
Two lawsuits – one in state courts, one before the U.S. Supreme Court – pose huge challenges to the state’s two statewide teachers unions. One and maybe both will be decided in 2016. The California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers are worried about the outcomes – for good reason.
Vergara v. California: In 2014, ruling on a lawsuit brought on behalf of nine students, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu overturned as unconstitutional five teacher protection statutes. Treu said that a two-year probationary period for new teachers – short compared with probation in most states – a layoff statute that protected senior teachers; and dismissal statutes that can make it burdensome to fire the state’s worst-performing teachers, violated the constitutional right of low-income and minority students to an equal opportunity to get a good education.
The state and the CTA appealed the ruling, and lawyers for Students Matter, which brought the lawsuit, expected a decision in 2015. But it didn’t happen, and there’s no deadline for the Court of Appeal to rule. Treu’s 16-page decision, in the view of some analysts, was light on substance.
Likelihood that the state Second District Court of Appeal will hear oral arguments and issue a decision this year:
Likelihood that whenever it decides, the court will overturn Treu’s decision in Vegara:
Friedrichs v. CTA: In Friedrichs v. CTA et al, 10 California teachers and a teachers group, Christian Educators Association International, sued the California Teachers Association and state of California over the state law that requires that teachers pay fees to their local unions and the state CTA to cover the costs of bargaining. The teachers argued that mandatory fees violate their free speech rights.
Dating back to a four-decades-old decision, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Supreme Court has upheld the right of states to require public employees to pay “fair share” or “agency fees” to unions that are obligated to represent them. Overturning the statute would affect not just teachers unions but potentially all public employee unions in California and the 24 other states with similar mandatory fees laws. All public employee unions could experience a huge drop in membership and, with it, a loss of money, power and influence if dues become strictly voluntary. That’s why Friedrichs will be one of the big decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court this spring and why unions and the Democratic Party, traditionally a strong union ally, are crossing their fingers.
One of the court’s most conservative justices, Antonin Scalia, has voted in the past to uphold Abood but could be the sway vote if, as some legal experts predict, the case is decided 5-4 either way.
Likelihood that Scalia will change his position and smack down public employee unions by fully or substantially agreeing with the Friedrichs teachers:
At the polls
School construction bond: Voters haven’t passed a statewide school construction bond since 2006, and school districts are standing in line with billions of dollars worth of requests for a state that has no money to give them. But Gov. Jerry Brown said during budget discussions last year that he wants the state to lower, not add to, long-term debt. He proposed that districts bear a bigger share of construction costs, with the state chipping in annually to help only districts without the means to build or repair schools.
School districts don’t like that idea, so a coalition of districts and building and design contractors, the Coalition for Adequate School Housing, or CASH, have placed a $9 billion school bond on the November 2016 ballot.
But Brown may get the last word. The governor may cut a deal with the Legislature to pre-empt CASH by putting a much smaller bond on the June primary ballot that includes his ideas for reforming the rules for dispensing school construction money. Brown would have to move quickly to line that up in time for a June vote.
Likelihood that Brown proposes a small state bond on the June ballot:
Likelihood that if Brown does that, the larger CASH bond is withdrawn or is defeated in November without the support of the governor and the state’s teachers unions:
Proposition 30: In 2012, amid the economic recession, Brown championed Proposition 30, establishing temporary increases in the state sales tax and income tax on high-wage earners (couples making over $500,000, individuals making over $250,000). It has brought in between $6 billion and $10 billion per year, primarily benefiting K-12 schools and community colleges. But the sales tax increase expires in 2016 and the income tax surcharges in 2018. Without the extension, K-12 revenues are projected to be flat after 2018 and will decline if there’s a recession. Adding to the financial pressures, school districts are facing a $2 billion increase in teacher and administrator pension costs over the next four years.
Both the California Teachers Association and the California Hospital Association called for extending Prop. 30 and submitted separate initiatives to the Secretary of State. The hospital association proposed making Prop. 30 permanent and splitting the proceeds between increasing support for Medi-Cal for low-income people and expanding early childhood education. Last month, after negotiations, the two refiled a joint initiative, with compromise language, which would avert competing initiatives on the same ballot – a sure path to defeat for both. However, the CTA has yet to take a formal position on the new wording, pending approval by its 700-member State Council.
The joint initiative, the California Children’s Education and Health Care Protection Act of 2016, is closer to the CTA’s original proposal. It would extend Prop. 30’s higher tax on high earners though 2030, with K-12 schools and community colleges getting first crack at the money to meet funding requirements under Proposition 98. After obligations to schools are fully funded, the next 45 percent of revenue would fund health care for children and their families through Medi-Cal, up to $2 billion, with the rest going to the General Fund.
Time is running out: The CTA must collect 585,407 signatures by June to put the measure on the ballot. The other challenge is Brown, who has said repeatedly that he sold Prop. 30 to voters as a temporary tax to avoid further cuts to education.
Likelihood that Brown will not oppose the extension, even if he won’t agree to campaign actively for it:
In the Legislature
Public employee unions: While Friedrichs v. CTA makes its way through the courts, Democrats in the Legislature and officials in the Brown administration have been tossing about ways they might soften the impact if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the decades-old state law requiring all public employees to pay “fair share” or “agency” fees to unions that are obligated to bargain on their behalf.
A victory by the plaintiffs in Friedrichs, however, would shift the burden to the unions to convince workers to voluntarily give them money. Worried that a ruling against the CTA would severely weaken their biggest ally, the administration and Democratic leaders are considering several ideas. One is a new law requiring school districts and other government agencies to give unions a half-hour at the start of the year to make a pitch for membership to new employees. Many districts already do this. The concept was explained to school groups at a meeting in November, but the final wording is still being drafted.
Likelihood that Democrats, with Brown’s blessing, would push through a bill this year to try to soften a ruling against the public employee unions:
Cap on district reserves: Brown and top Democrats in the Legislature infuriated organizations representing school boards and administrators in June 2014, when they quietly inserted into the state budget a limit on the amount of money that districts could put aside for financial emergencies and needs such as computer purchases. The move was pushed by unions representing school employees, who had complained that districts, following the recession, were hoarding cash.
The California School Boards Association made rescission of the cap its top priority for 2015, but its effort crashed in September, when members of its coalition split over compromise legislation that would have raised the level of the cap and exempted small districts from any restrictions on reserves.
The school boards association will be back at it again in 2016, trying to get the purists, who insist on a full repeal, and the pragmatists, who’ll settle for a deal, on the same page. Then there are school officials who privately say the whole issue is overblown, since districts can figure out ways around the cap.
This may be a case of issue fatigue.
Likelihood that the reserve cap will be rescinded in 2016:
Teacher shortage: Before the recession and decentralized school funding under the Local Control Funding Formula, California had several programs to entice college graduates to become teachers in hard-to-staff or struggling schools. There was APLE, the Assumption Program of Loans for Educators, a program that forgave $11,000 or more in college loans, and the Governor’s Teaching Fellowships, a program phased out more than a decade ago that provided grants of up to $20,000 for aspiring teachers who agreed to teach in schools with low-performing students. The state also funded BTSA, Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment, a mentoring program required for new teachers to get their full credential.
In October, Brown vetoed a bill that would have required the state to fund BTSA in those districts that offered it, and an effort to restart APLE foundered in the Legislature. But louder predictions and evidence (here and here) of an impending teacher shortage, and an EdSource-commissioned poll indicating voters view this as a serious problem, could lead the Legislature and Brown administration to act in 2016. Relaunch an APLE-like program? Fund a marketing campaign to persuade college students to pursue teaching in a more benign post-No Child Left Behind era?
To direct more support to teachers, advisers with Brown’s ear, such as Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who chairs the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, must convince Brown there’s a state role in addressing the shortage. Then Brown will have to agree to spend some of the projected several billion dollars in one-time revenue he’ll have at his disposal.
Likelihood that Brown will address the teacher shortage in the state budget (probably in the May revision):
Preschool Promise: In the 2014-15 budget, Brown and the Legislature made a promise to provide state-subsidized preschool slots for every low-income 4-year-old in the state. But they didn’t say exactly when.
In this year’s budget, the lawmakers made progress toward meeting the promise, adding 9,500 slots. But 22,000 low-income 4-year-olds are still being left out. When pressed on why he didn’t allocate more in this year’s budget, Brown said that it “isn’t that child care isn’t a good thing. But there’s a lot of good things, so which one do you want?”
Providing funding for the slots will not in itself fulfill the promise. Currently, there are not enough providers to meet the need, and relatively low reimbursement rates make it difficult to attract new ones. In addition, there are not enough facilities statewide to add 22,000 more children.
Some leaders in the education community worry that more money for pre-K means less for K-12. Additional money for preschool and child care was left out of the compromise language of the proposed initiative extending Prop. 30 that the CTA and the California Hospital Association agreed to. Advocates are turning to allies in the Legislature to again push through a substantial increase in preschool slots. If California’s budget remains strong, they are optimistic they’ll get at least get the same number of slots as last year, and also get a share of one-time funds for facilities.
Likelihood that the Legislature will fund at least an additional 9,500 preschool slots, plus one-time funding for facilities this year:
The State Board of Education
Future of the Academic Performance Index: Congress’ passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to No Child Left Behind, compounded the already packed calendar of the State Board of Education.
In March, the board and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson must present the Legislature with a state plan detailing in what grades, in what form and in what subjects students will be given state standardized tests. Then, by September, the board must pass a set of statewide metrics or rubrics that will guide districts in measuring their improvement and guide the state in determining when it must intervene in failing schools. At the same time, the board must ensure its new school testing and accountability system complies with the new federal law that, while giving states flexibility, comes with a new set of complex requirements.
The biggest challenge may be to figure out whether it can meet the federal mandate that it identify the 5 percent of worst-performing schools needing intervention without re-creating the Academic Performance Index, a single number based solely on test scores, rating a school’s performance. The board suspended the API two years ago and wants to switch to a “dashboard” of metrics that show a more multi-faceted picture of a school.
State officials at this point don’t have a clue whether a dashboard would be in conflict with the new federal law; neither do we.
Likelihood that the state board will be forced to re-create an API-like measure of school performance:
Staff writer Susan Frey contributed to this report.