State board inscribes ‘California Way’ on state plan for new federal law

May 4, 2017

California education officials have taken advantage of a more hands-off approach to education by Congress and the Trump administration. They are proposing to transfer their distinct vision for school improvement, which they call “the California Way,” to the state plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act, the 2015 federal law that governs how the state will spend a projected $2.6 billion in federal education funding.

The State Board of Education, which oversees how the money will be used, posted the 80-page first draft last week and will discuss it at its meeting on May 10 (see agenda Item 3). A 30-day public comment period will start in late May, followed by a revision at the board’s July meeting, a final vote in mid-September and submission to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos by Sept. 18.

The $2.6 billion, based on the current federal budget, would constitute only about 3 percent of total funding for California’s K-12 schools, and Trump is proposing significant cuts next year. But in return for receiving whatever the amount is, the state board must spell out how it will identify and improve the lowest-performing 5 percent of approximately 6,000 schools that enroll sizable numbers of low-income students. It must also explain how districts will spend hundreds of millions of dollars reserved for training teachers, improving English skills of English learners, offering after-school programs for low-income students and improving the education of migrant children. Federally determined formulas will divvy up the bulk of the funding, but the final plan will spell out what the state board will do with tens of millions of dollars directly under its control.

In replacing the No Child Left Behind Act with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, Congress reversed what it viewed as federal overreach in prescribing how to fix schools. Then, earlier this year, by rescinding regulations it had passed in the last days of the Obama administration, it gave more latitude to states to decide what to do with funding and how to approach school accountability. To add emphasis, Trump signed an executive order last week promising more steps to pare back the federal role and promote state and local district control.

All of these actions will provide the state board “maximum flexibility to utilize federal resources” to support California’s school accountability system, the state board staff wrote in an introduction to the draft plan. It added, “Given the new federal approach to collect only what is ‘absolutely necessary,’” California’s plan “has been written to meet, not exceed, federal requirements.”

And that has some advocacy groups worried, since they were counting on the regulations that congressional Republicans negotiated with Democrats to strengthen requirements that states effectively spend federal money to end disparities in achievement between low-income, African-American and Latino students and their higher-income, white and Asian peers.

“Is the goal flexibility or flexibility to improve outcomes for the most disadvantaged kids?” asks Rob Manwaring, senior policy and fiscal adviser to the Oakland-based nonprofit Children Now.

Equity – providing additional resources and opportunities to learn for students furthest behind ­ – is cited as a guiding principle throughout the draft plan. The state’s Local Control Funding Formula channels significantly more money to English learners and low-income children. The state’s new accountability system not only measures the performance of a dozen student subgroups, as federal law requires, but also highlights those performing poorly in the Equity Report, the home page of the new accountability website, the California School Dashboard.

But Manwaring said Children Now and other student advocacy groups want stronger equity strategies than they’ve seen in the draft state plan. They’re calling for specific goals and rates of improvement that each low-performing student subgroup, such as English learners, must meet within a set number of years to narrow performance gaps.

The state board has spent the past two years designing a single, coherent accountability system in which schools and districts will be evaluated with a range of metrics that would meet both state requirements of the funding formula and federal law. There currently are five indicators for which there are statewide data: standardized test results in English language arts and math, student suspension and graduation rates, and progress of English learners in becoming proficient in English. Two more state indicators are on the way: a college and career readiness indicator, starting this fall, and chronic absentee rates in 2018-19.

Choosing lowest-performing schools

In March, the state board introduced a color-coded “dashboard,” which ranks performance on each indicator. The rankings will enable the state board to determine which low-performing school districts will need targeted and more intensive assistance. Under the state plan for ESSA, the board will apply the same dashboard criteria to determine which 5 percent of schools receiving federal funding for low-income students will get intensive help.

The draft state plan explains the concept behind a new cycle of “continuous school improvement” grounded in local control. Performance data from the dashboards will guide districts when they annually update spending and improvement priorities in Local Control and Accountability Plans that the funding formula requires them to write. Low-performing schools and schools with low-performing subgroups will get assistance.

But what the help will look like, how it will be funded and who will provide it ­– county offices of education, other experts, networks of districts or a new state agency, the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence – are missing from the draft. They are among many key issues that must be fleshed out by September. Some of them, likely to be sharply debated, include:

How to choose the lowest-performing schools – at a minimum, the bottom 5 percent – needing intensive help: The board will likely start with schools whose indicators are all red, the lowest ranking of five colors on the dashboard. But after that, there are a number of options to select the rest.

How much weight to give test scores: Federal law requires giving extra weight to academic performance in determining the lowest-performing 5 percent; the draft plan proposes to categorize chronic absenteeism as an academic factor and to give it, test scores, graduation rates and other factors equal weight.

How to define ineffective teachers: In order to identify whether schools with low-income and underachieving minority students have disproportionately high numbers of inexperienced and ineffective teachers and teachers instructing subjects they’re not trained to teach, ESSA requires states to collect and publicize data at the school level. California has no definition of ineffective teachers, but there is a trail of failed lawsuits and bills over it and issues related to teacher evaluations. The California Teachers Association, student advocacy groups, and the organizations representing school boards and administrators will likely suggest very different definitions.

A longer Local Control and Accountability Plan: ESSA requires states to monitor how districts spend different allocations of federal money. A logical place would be to require districts to include federal revenue in their accountability plans in order to encourage districts to treat state and federal funding coherently and to let the public know where all the money is going. But there already are complaints about the length and complexity of the plans, and a proposed 15-page federal addendum to the Local Control and Accountability Plan that several districts may pilot this year (see pages 4-29) will add to both.

School-based budgets: ESSA requires that all schools provide revenue and spending breakdowns, including actual personnel costs for each school. This would be a significant change since most districts include average districtwide teacher salaries and benefits in calculating school budgets. The new method will more clearly reveal financial disparities within districts between low-income and wealthy schools.

The issue is not dealt with in the state plan, but the state board must provide an assurance that the law will be enforced. Meanwhile, Children Now and Education Trust–West are co-sponsoring Assembly Bill 1321, which also would require districts to break down spending under the Local Control Funding Formula by school – an idea that Gov. Jerry Brown opposes.

Discretionary spending: Most federal money will be distributed to districts by formula based on district and school enrollment. However, the state board expects to have a say over about $126 million in Title I funding, which must be spent on improving the 5 percent of lowest-performing schools and other schools with low-performing student subgroups. The draft doesn’t say how the money will be distributed. It also will control up to about $20 million earmarked for teacher development and training for statewide activities. About $7 million will go to training principals and administrators in academic standards and leadership issues in ways to be determined.

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