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In his State of the State speech last month, Gov. Jerry Brown laid down a marker on the decades-old but profoundly important question that is still dividing key constituencies in the education reform movement in California and nationally: Just how much say should Washington have over California’s education policies in return for the federal education funds the state receives?
To Brown, the answer is clear. California, not Washington, should be the driver of reforms dictating how schools will be held accountable for how well, or badly, their students do.
Referring to the state’s Local Control Funding Formula, which he championed, Brown said he is “proud of how California has led the country in the way it is returning control to local school districts.”
“For the last two decades, there has been a national movement to micromanage teachers from afar, through increasingly minute and prescriptive state and federal regulations,” he said. “California successfully fought that movement and has now changed its overly intrusive, test-heavy state control to a true system of local accountability.”
The issue is still on the table because of the recent federal law signed by President Barack Obama, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which will go into effect in the 2017-18 school year. It replaces the now widely discredited No Child Left Behind law signed by President George W. Bush in 2002.
Just a week before Brown’s speech, Sue Burr, one of his closest advisors on education, pointed out at the State Board of Education meeting in Sacramento that the state will spend $71 billion of its own money on schools, and only about $7 billion will come from the federal government. “As Carl Sagan used to say,” Burr said, “that’s ‘b’ for billion.”
Her argument is that while California should adhere to the federal law, the state should not be turning itself inside out to adapt its reforms to fit the federal ones. Instead, she said, the locus of change should be here in California. “We are responsible for our children in California,” said Burr, a Brown appointee to the state board. “We have to look at what they (the federal government) have offered us, and how do we make it conform with what we are trying to do as well.”
“The state has to be the leader in proportion to our contribution (in school funding) and our responsibility (under the state constitution),” Burr said.
But the issue is far from settled, and is a central point of contention as the U.S. Department of Education draws up regulations to implement the new federal law. Late last month, 37 advocacy and civil rights organizations, including the NAACP and MALDEF, made the case that the law – the successor to the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act – is in essence a civil rights law, and will require “robust and thorough” federal regulation “to close opportunity and achievement gaps.”
The U.S. Department of Education, the groups asserted in a letter to the department, “has the weighty responsibility of developing regulations that are comprehensive enough and sufficiently detailed to ensure that state and local implementation is consistent with the intent of this law and the longstanding federal role in protecting the civil rights of all Americans.”
This includes requiring states to identify the bottom 5 percent of lowest-performing schools and intervene when necessary. The groups also called for “meaningful enforcement” by the federal government of provisions in the law to ensure that minority students have equal access to quality teachers. They also asked for “thorough oversight” of reporting of per-pupil expenditures, school discipline, school climate and access to courses students need to be successful in college and the workplace.
However, the reality is that the law explicitly weakens the authority of the Department of Education, and devolves decision-making to the states to a far greater extent than NCLB did. In an unexpected outcome, California’s reforms and the new federal mandates are now far more closely aligned than they have been in years.
As the White House itself acknowledges on its website, the new law is intended to “empower state and local decision-makers to develop their own strong systems for school improvement based upon evidence, rather than imposing cookie-cutter federal solutions like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) did.”
That thrust is entirely consistent with California’s reforms emphasizing local control.
Civil rights organizations are also understandably nervous about giving more power to the states, especially as a result of the long shadow cast by vehement and at times violent opposition to school integration, especially in the South during the turbulent era following the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.
But California is not the South. In fact, California is currently doing far more on the equity front than the federal government. As a result of the Local Control Funding Formula legislation, the state is targeting far more in state funds than it receives in federal Title 1 dollars for spending on low-income students (which include large numbers of African-American and Latino students), English learners and foster students.
Civil rights advocates also worry that without federal enforcement states will eviscerate what they view as one of NCLB’s biggest benefits: requiring school districts and states to publish test scores of a range of student subgroups, including African-Americans and Latinos.
But California already required those disaggregated scores through the state’s Public School Accountability Act, which became law in 1999, three years before George W. Bush signed NCLB. There is no hint that California has had any intention of abandoning that requirement.
It is also worth considering that the current Congress is firmly under GOP control, and depending on what happens in the 2016 elections and beyond, all three branches of government could end up in Republican hands. It is hard to imagine that civil rights in California would be advanced more aggressively by a federal government hostile to immigrant rights and other programs and policies, such as the Affordable Care Act, that are making a difference in the lives of California students and families in greatest need.
It is also hard to ignore that the federal government – including the Obama administration – has had a sorry record in recent years in supporting California’s education reforms, which have a particular focus on helping students from low-income and immigrant families. The state was shut out from receiving all but a sliver of Obama’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top Fund. It was the only state to be denied a waiver from the most onerous provisions of the No Child Left Behind law. The Obama administration tried to obstruct California’s implementation of the Common Core standards, even threatening to withhold billions of dollars in federal Title 1 funds if it didn’t do it Washington’s way, which included administering tests tied to outdated academic standards.
But all that is in the past. Unexpectedly, the new federal law that was voted in with huge bipartisan majorities is closely aligned with California’s. There is now an opportunity for a reset of relations between Washington and California, the state most at odds with federal education authorities in recent years. A sign of how this could be done came this week when the Department of Education quickly approved California’s application for a waiver from spending $233 million in Title 1 funds on private after-school tutoring as required by the outdated NCLB law.
There is, however, no guarantee that California’s reforms will have their desired impact, regardless of how well intentioned they are. Nor is Brown or anyone else in the state suggesting that California refuse to take the billions of dollars in federal funds it currently receives. So some federal oversight and accountability will still have to be a part of the equation.
What would benefit the state is a new compact between the federal government and California characterized by mutual support, not top-down prescriptions that have fallen far short of their goals to improve academic outcomes for all of California’s 6 million public school children.
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