Michael Kirst retires this week after eight years as president of the State Board of Education, satisfied that the key pieces of Gov. Jerry Brown’s education policies he helped create are solidly in place. But in an interview, he expressed worry that a failure to sufficiently fund training for teachers and principals in the new academic standards, school climate and other supports for students could undermine expectations for achievement and erode the public’s faith in the new system.
An emeritus professor of education and business administration at Stanford University, Kirst also asserted a need for more K-12 funding, cited challenges to expanding the state’s education data system and discussed his close collaboration with Brown.
And he called for the creation of a new government agency or function within the governor’s office that would oversee children’s needs beyond K-12 education — issues like stress, health and the overall condition of families. “State government ought to create an entity which would oversee child and youth development that would work in tandem with the education area,” he said. “Children’s issues are interconnected.”
Kirst, 79, calls the past eight years the most productive of his career, in which he was able to effect policies in California he had long advocated. A decade ago, he co-authored a paper outlining a weighted student formula that turned into Brown’s signature law, the Local Control Funding Formula, passed in 2013. It focused education finance and governance on two principles: funding equity, with more money based on school districts’ enrollment of low-income students, English learners and foster children; and a shift of decision-making from Sacramento to school districts.
The Legislature left details of carrying out the law and creating a school accountability system to the state board; two years ago the board introduced a multicolored state dashboard with many measures of school progress and student achievement. Coinciding with this work, the board adopted guidelines, called frameworks, for teaching the Common Core standards in reading and math; new standards in science and for students learning English and new standardized tests in all subjects.
Altogether, it’s been an ambitious undertaking. Repeating what he has often stated at state board meetings, Kirst called for “patience” in not judging the results prematurely. And he expressed frustration — but not surprise — that the focus of public discussion has been on the mechanics of measuring progress instead of the underlying conditions needed for improvement.
“Most of the groups that have come before the state board or the Legislature are pushing for more and more things in the dashboard. And more intervention. What you hear much less about and much less money spent on is, for example, ‘How are we going to take all the mathematics teachers and teachers in elementary grades and enable them to teach Common Core mathematics?’ Professional development takes a long time.”
Under local control, the state no longer prescribes the type of training districts should adopt and doesn’t fund it. Individual districts now decide how much of a priority training is and who should get it. County offices of education, the California Department of Education and a new agency, the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, are supposed to guide low-performing districts on strategies for improvement.
Kirst said it is too soon to say whether the new state system of district support will be effective. But he acknowledged that districts haven’t yet received much guidance from the state. “I would have hoped that the collaborative would have been farther along in terms of helping out. To me, that’s a major disappointment.”
Kirst said he agrees with other leaders who have called for more K-12 funding. Given the high rate of child poverty and high cost of living in California, “we need more money. There’s no doubt about that,” he said. But the immediate problem facing many districts is a loss of state revenue from an enrollment decline. A fix for that, he said, would be to lengthen the period phasing in the revenue losses.
He agreed that the base funding under the funding formula, covering general expenses, should be increased, though he declined to say by how much. The Legislature is expected to reconsider a bill that would set a target increase of $55 billion for base funding, enough to put California among the top 10 states in per-student spending. Kirst was skeptical.
“It could be something we shoot for but yet it’s so ambitious that it won’t drive policy very effectively. What we did (with the funding formula) was set up (a target) for seven years. We might not get into the top 10 but this was achievable and people could hold us accountable and measure how we were doing.”
Broader view of children’s needs
Kirst did not publicly push for an agency responsible for children’s overall development as Brown’s education adviser, but he said the time may be right for the idea. Thirty years ago, he proposed creating a special policy adviser on children and youth in the governor’s office, as the lead author of a massive report, “The Conditions of Children in California.” But the national mood shifted, particularly during the presidency of George W. Bush and the adoption of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The conventional wisdom became “any talk beyond education to solve problems like the achievement gap is the soft bigotry of low expectations,” Kirst said, “so education alone could do it. Teachers needed to pull up their socks and work harder,” and states should “pound them with accountability.”
Now, he said, there is recognition that “we have to face the fact that schooling needs some backups, that we need to think more about children holistically.”
Will the system survive?
Saying the funding formula needed time to work, Brown vowed to veto any amendments to the law — and did. Six years after its passage, Kirst said, “I haven’t seen any convincing case — and I could be open to it — but I haven’t seen any studies” to justify changes to the formula.
Asked whether he is concerned that all of his work will be cast aside in the next wave of reform, Kirst said “the real threat that blows up” the system would be the Legislature’s re-imposition of “categorical funding” — restricted pots of money that undermine local autonomy. The Legislature added 27 categorical funds the year before Brown took office, Kirst said. “And that seems to be the natural instinct of the Legislature. Brown showed very clearly that you can shut that down and hold the fort.”
Data: Kirst said he agrees with Newsom and others who call for an expanded statewide education database that reaches into early childhood and expands to higher education. “I think it should happen,” and will, once difficult issues over privacy and control of data now scattered among higher education institutions are resolved, he said. He said Brown opposed data expansion because “he distrusted a system of centralized data that didn’t have proper controls and a governing system” and wasn’t presented with an approvable plan.
Special education: Brown didn’t include state funding for students with disabilities in the funding formula, because special education money is funneled through regional agencies with complex issues and funding disparities. Discussions over remaking the system went nowhere. “We couldn’t devise anything that would have a winning coalition or that even made sense in some ways,” Kirst said.
Students with disabilities were the lowest-performing student group on state metrics and the state faces a severe shortage of special education teachers. “I would single out special education as another area where you could say, ‘Where’s the capacity to get the schools and districts out of the red on the dashboard?’” he said.
Kirst said he will remain involved in California education issues, though he hasn’t decided in what role. He advised Brown on education since his first term as governor in 1975; as Brown’s appointee, he led the state board during all of Brown’s four terms as governor. During his last two terms, Brown met often with him and with two other close advisers, Sue Burr, also a member of the state board, and Karen Stapf Walters, the board’s executive director. “The three of us were a phalanx. He did talk to other people. But overriding that threesome would be difficult for him,” he said.
Kirst kept those conversations and differences of opinions private, deferring to Brown, who waited until bills were on his desk to announce his positions. Now that Brown and he are out of office, Kirst won’t feel constrained.
Now that he doesn’t have that “inhibition,” Kirst said he won’t hesitate to express his opinions openly about issues and directions that Newsom is taking, “even though I wish him well and like him personally.”
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