A major thrust of landmark education reforms introduced during Gov. Jerry Brown’s tenure has been to emphasize local control of schools and to view the state’s primary role as providing support to districts to improve.
But the state’s ability to provide that support is constrained by the weakness of the California Department of Education, according to a new report issued as part of the Getting Down to Facts research project.
The report, written by Brown University associate professor Susan Moffitt and seven other researchers, says that the department “remains a vital component of instructional support with its responsibility to gather and distribute data, to support the development of curriculum frameworks and oversee county offices of education.”
But it states bluntly that currently “conditions in the CDE constrain the agency’s ability to support frontline practice,” referring to the department’s ability to assist districts directly.
The department also finds itself caught between two conflicting strands of state education policy: pushing more decision-making to the local level and away from sanctions-heavy mandates emanating from Sacramento and Washington, while also being called on to provide more support to districts and to exercise oversight over districts most in need of help.
In an interview, Moffitt said the California Department of Education — usually referred to as CDE — could help local districts carry out their “enormous task” of self-improvement, and that local control is not incompatible with having a strong and capable state agency.
The report noted that the department is trying to embrace its new role and is in the midst of a “significant reorganization aimed at becoming more of a support organization.”
Heading the education department is Tom Torlakson, the state superintendent of public instruction. It is a statewide elected position with limited powers to determine education policy. But whoever holds the post can use it as an effective bully pulpit to influence the Legislature and the State Board of Education on education policy.
Torlakson will be termed out this year after serving two four-year terms. He will be succeeded by either Marshall Tuck or Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond, who are facing each other in a runoff election Nov. 6.
What is clear is that whoever wins will inherit a depleted department. The Getting Down to Facts report offers several reasons why.
One is limited capacity. “Compared nationally and over time, however, California has significantly fewer state education department employees, relative to the size of its student population,” Moffitt and her fellow researchers found.
The department has a very low ratio of employees to the number of students in the state. The report looked at a several states and found that California’s staffing level is comparable to that of Florida and Texas — but is far lower than Maryland, Colorado and Massachusetts. At key points following the Great Recession, positions related to instructional support were either trimmed or not filled, in part because California eliminated several targeted or “categorical” programs that the department had previously administered.
David Plank, a senior fellow and former director of Policy Analysis for California Education, or PACE, said the cuts reflected what he called “a lack of faith and confidence” by Brown and key appointees at the Department of Finance that the CDE could play an assertive guiding role in a new era of reform. “Brown’s view was, ‘We don’t want to run things out of Sacramento and tell local communities what to do. Let them chart their own course,'” Plank said. PACE is a research and policy organization based at Stanford, but run jointly by several universities.
The Local Control Funding Formula championed by Brown went into effect in 2013 and set up a mechanism for the state government to help school districts improve. But the law created a new and much smaller state agency, the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, to lead that effort, rather than CDE.
Rick Simpson, who helped draft the local control funding law as deputy chief of staff to then-Assembly Speaker John Pérez, said he pushed to establish a new entity within CDE to be “the broker of advice and expertise.” But Brown’s staff objected, he said. The governor’s view was that the department was unsuited to taking on a support role, said Simpson, who advised nine Assembly speakers on K-12 education before retiring in 2016. “The undercurrent was ‘we are OK doing this new thing but not with CDE and the state superintendent in charge.'”
Another problem is that the salaries paid to department employees are markedly lower than those paid by large urban districts and many county offices of education. That makes it harder for the department to recruit or retain staff — and it can find itself competing with the very entities it is supposed to be helping or overseeing.
In addition, salaries in the department are relatively low compared to many other states — even when taking into account the higher costs of living in California. Salaries are on a par with states like Tennessee and Florida, but significantly lower than those paid in Massachusetts and Minnesota. For example, the median CDE salary in 2016 was $55,000, compared to $90,537 in Massachusetts’ education department and $74,189 in that of Texas.
One byproduct, according to the Getting Down to Facts report, is that the CDE has relatively few staff with expertise in the subject matter that students learn in the classroom.
CDE’s Price said he has been surprised how many high-quality staff have stayed in the department. “It’s a fabulous time to develop policy and innovations,” he said. Many department employees, he said, “take satisfaction being part of that work.”
“But as one head hunter said, ‘You cannot expect people to sacrifice lifestyle changes for those non-monetary returns.’ No employee here makes close to what a superintendent of a midsize district earns. The wages and benefits in many districts and counties are orders of magnitude better.”
Another issue is that most of the department’s budget comes in the form of federal funds the state receives to oversee federally-backed education programs. This year the department gets $49.1 million from the state’s general fund, and $175.1 million in federal funds.
One consequence is that the department doesn’t have the funds to hire and pay content experts who are in demand in districts and county offices of education. It also means that the department’s work is skewed towards overseeing and administering federal grants and programs — and all the reporting requirements that come with it. As a result, department employees “have little time left for other kinds of work.”
“Without state sources of flexible funding for the CDE, the agency has few opportunities to provide instructional support to the counties and districts that seek its help,” the Getting Down to Facts report noted.
All this is happening at a time when local education leaders are looking to the state to provide guidance on implementing a number of aspects of California’s landmark reforms, most notably the Local Control Funding Formula. County offices of education have been given the principal task of providing support to districts in their geographic areas. But a survey of school superintendents conducted by the Getting Down to Facts researchers showed that many superintendents want information from the state on instructional materials, on implementation of the Local Control Funding Formula and the Local Control and Accountability Plan, especially in districts with high concentrations of English learners
One thing to watch during the coming year will be whether Lt. Gov. Gavin Newson, California’s likely next governor, will try to strengthen the department as part of his pledge to create “a cradle to career” system of education in the state, or whether he will continue to emphasize local control at the expense of a stronger state-level department with headquarters in Sacramento. Also to watch for is what the next superintendent of public instruction will do to strengthen the department. Both have pledged to do so, but it is not clear how.
The report was written as part of the massive Getting Down to Facts research collaborative that issued 36 research reports last month on almost every aspects of preK-12 education in California. Researchers from Rutgers, Stetson University, and the University of Michigan also participated in the CDE study.