Democratic candidates for governor declare support for California’s signature education reforms

November 7, 2017

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The four leading Democratic candidates vying to be the next governor of California say they are committed to continuing landmark education reforms initiated by Gov. Jerry Brown, who will be termed out of office next year.

Whether the next governor will support the Local Control Funding Formula and related reforms has been an issue of considerable concern in education circles across the state.

But in early comments on the Local Control Funding Formula, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, State Treasurer John Chiang, and former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin all say they support the Local Control Funding Formula — with some caveats. They will all be on the June 5 primary ballot next year.

Their views on education are noteworthy because California’s next governor will be in a powerful position to shape education policies, just as Brown has been. The governor also appoints the 11-member State Board of Education, which has far more decision-making authority than the state superintendent of public instruction. Voters will also select the person to fill that post on the statewide ballot next June.

Credit: John Joanino/Advancement Project California

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks via Skype at the Birth to Five Water Cooler event by Advancement Project California on Oct. 2 2017

Because education consumes such a huge proportion of the state budget, the next governor will have considerable influence over how those funds are spent — and whether the funds should be spent on other programs and initiatives not covered by the Local Control Funding Formula.

The Local Control Funding Formula, approved by the state Legislature in June 2013, targets billions in state funds on high-needs children in four categories — low-income students, English learners, foster children and homeless children — and also devolves decision-making powers to local school districts.

School districts are required to draw up an “accountability plan” showing how they will spend the funds on these children.

It marks a dramatic departure from the “top-down” approach enshrined in both the state’s Public School Accountability Act of 1989 and the federal No Child Left Behind law signed by President George W. Bush in 2002.

The candidates laid out their views most clearly at a Birth to Five Water Cooler event sponsored by Advancement Project California last month in Sacramento.

At that event, Newsom indicated that he is a “big supporter” of the Local Control Funding Formula. who is polling ahead of other candidates in early polls, with many voters undecided.   The former mayor of San Francisco is leading other candidates in early polls, although many likely voters are still undecided. Newsom said he would resist efforts to mothball the LCFF despite the fact that the reforms have not yet resulted in big increases in average scores on the new Smarter Balanced tests in math and English language arts administered to over 3 million students in some K-12 grades each spring for the last three years.

“I’m concerned that there are a lot of pundits out there, and people who are ready to pull the plug after just a few years,” he said. “We’re just a few years into this. I think it’s profoundly important to support this effort.”

Newsom said that local control is “not just a slogan for me.” “Localism is determinative,” he said. “It’s a bottom-up, not top-down strategy. The power and importance of culturally competent solutions at the local level is a core value of mine. I want to see it advanced. ”

Credit: John Joanino/Advancement Project California

Former LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is interviewed by EdSource’s Louis Freedberg

Newsom did express some concerns about the lack of progress in raising test scores. Average scores rose in the second year the test was administered in 2016, but were essentially flat this year.

“Obviously, we worried a little bit,” he said. “We wanted to see the success on the last test (in 2016) continued on this test (in 2017). But we are making progress around the state.”

He also observed that the other 14 states that administered the Smarter Balanced tests showed declines in scores on the English language arts portion of the test. He referred to an issue raised by some test experts that the multi-state test score declines could reflect a problem with the tests themselves, indicating that it might be worthwhile looking into those concerns.

Newsom also suggested that the state might need to be more assertive in holding schools accountable for how they spend state funds they receive through the Local Control Funding Formula. “It’s all about transparency and accountability, but we have to actually follow through on what those words mean, and I think be a little bit more aggressive in advancing those principles,” he said.

Villaraigosa also endorsed the Local Control Funding Formula, although perhaps not with quite the same alacrity as Newsom.

“It’s going to continue, but we are going to build on it,” said Villaraigosa, without detailing what “building” on the LCFF would mean in practice. “We need to do more.”

Villaraigosa was especially passionate about doing more to ensure the success of low-income students. “Kids who grew up the way I did, those kids need more than my kids,” he said. “We’re going to have to build on what we’ve done with the Local Control Funding Formula, to make sure that those kids have the resources that they need so that they can compete with the kids who grow up in the more affluent homes.”

Credit: John Joanino/Advancement Project California

Former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin

As to whether Sacramento should be more prescriptive in setting tougher standards, as many advocates are pushing it to be, Villaraigosa said “I do believe in local control.” But he also suggested that there could be tougher standards. “I also believe that there needs to be standard thresholds of accountability. So that’s a balance that you’re going to have to strike (between local control and state-imposed accountability standards). When I’m governor, I obviously will look at working with all the stakeholders to figure out where that balance is.”

Delaine Eastin, who was state superintendent of public instruction from 1994 to 2002, also endorsed the LCFF. “I’m very positive about the Local Control Funding Formula,” she said.

But she worried that the legislation and the reforms it sparked could be used “as an excuse” not to do more.

“If you’re at the bottom 10 of the 50 states in per-pupil spending, you’re essentially rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” she said. “The system is so badly under-funded that there’s sort of a complacency about saying, ‘Well, we’ve got local control. It’s up to the locals now’ when local school districts are still under-funded.”

State Treasurer Chiang also said he supported LCFF, but did not provide any details about whether he thought the state should be more prescriptive. But he emphasized the need to provide more support for teachers to ensure that they are able to carry out the state’s reforms effectively, as well as to do more to support “school site leadership.”

He also expressed some concern about “the misallocation of resources, especially those (schools) that don’t have the same accountability and transparency,” an apparent reference to misuse of funds at some charter schools that have been the target of state and media scrutiny.

Credit: John Joanino/Advancement Project California

State Treasurer John Chiang

In a September report titled California’s Golden Opportunity, Michael Fullan and colleagues concluded that educators in California feel a sense of urgency to implement the reforms while Gov. Brown is in office, but “are anxious about the 2018 election and the change of governor and state superintendent that will follow.”

David Plank, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a joint project of UC Berkeley, Stanford University and USC, said some of these anxieties have been alleviated as the candidates indicate their overall support for the LCFF.

But as the remarks by the candidates at last month’s forum indicate, it is still unclear just how much additional “accountability” they would demand of school districts should any of them be elected governor, even as they broadly support the Local Control Funding Formula and the principle of local control.

There is still considerable anxiety that the reforms will “fray around the edges” under the next governor, Plank said, and that “the Legislature will be given much greater latitude to reinstate categorical funding streams or to more closely regulate choices district have to make.”

“While Gov. Brown has prevented any dismantling of the reform framework, there is anxiety that a new governor may lean towards a reassertion of central legislative and executive authority over local decision-making,” Plank said.

Author Louis Freedberg moderated the appearances of the gubernatorial candidates at Advancement Project California’s event on Oct. 2 in Sacramento .

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