Credit: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/Polaris
Kindergarten teacher Jennifer Klein shows students to use their arms to keep social distance on the playground at Lupine Hill Elementary School in Calabasas in November 2020. This is the Las Virgenes Unified School District.

Were it not for a pandemic ….

A couple of months into 2020, I was on track to crown myself pundit of the year. Then came Covid in March to create suffering for so many people — and wreck my annual predictions column. I know: it’s shallow to equate the two. But it’s my best excuse.

This year promises to be no easier than last to forecast, with variables and pitfalls that will defy oddsmakers. But with false humility, I’ll look ahead and assume that like a stopped clock, I’ll get at least one guess right.

Promise kept?

In the recession budget that the Legislature adopted last June, Gov. Gavin Newsom agreed to increase spending by 1.5% for K-12 schools and community colleges annually, starting in 2021-22 — a commitment that the Legislative Analyst’s Office suggested that he and lawmakers back out of, since revenues are swimmingly good this year. By 2024-25 the extra revenue would grow to about $6.3 billion, the LAO estimated. That’s billions more than what K-14 would have gotten annually in higher commercial property taxes, had Proposition 15 won in November. Newsom nominally supported Prop. 15 and has said that schools need more revenue long-term. School groups and the CTA will try to hold his feet to the fire. Lobbies for cities, counties and social services, who’d lose funding that schools would gain, will fire up their allies to stop him.

Likelihood that Gov. Newsom will give an extra 1.5% funding beyond the minimum required: 

Return to school

Just before the new year, Newsom offered schools $2 billion in incentives if they’d begin to open up schools to elementary students by Feb. 15 and start testing students and staff for the Covid virus. The money will end up unclaimed. The timing couldn’t have been worse to lay the plan on schools, with hospital ICUs jammed and Covid death tolls rising, and the time frame for districts to negotiate a safety plan with unions and put a testing regimen in place is too short.

Likelihood that all elementary school students in most of the 10 largest urban districts, for whom the proposal is aimed, will return to school by March 15 if Newsom’s plan remains largely unchanged: 

Likelihood that the Legislature will substantially change Newsom’s plan, pushing back the start date to after March 15 and not requiring schools to open if their counties are in the most infectious “purple” tier, as Newsom had outlined: 

Deferral dilemma

When it appeared last spring that state revenues would plummet amid a Covid-spurred recession, the Legislature put off cutting K-12 and community college budgets by deferring $12.5 billion owed to schools until the next fiscal year. That has required districts to dig into savings or borrow short-term. Now that state revenues are running way ahead of projections, the question is whether the state should wipe out the debt fully, or carry over several billion dollars in IOUs, letting districts have more money now to recover from the pandemic. Newsom’s initial position will be to wipe out the debt, but that would change come spring, depending on state revenue projections, districts’ opinions and appeals for more aid from Washington.

Likelihood that in the final state budget, the state will repay every penny of the $12.5 billion in deferrals adopted a year ago: 

Ethnic studies

After two years, three drafts, tens of thousands of comments and unquantifiable tensions, the final draft model ethnic studies curriculum is ready to go to the State Board of Education in March. Some language has been massaged to tone down criticism of capitalism and white oppression and compromises were made with ethnic and religious groups — Sikhs, Jews, Palestinians — who had felt their stories were diminished. But disagreements remain between those who say the critique of oppression has been watered down and those who say it’s still too leftist, bleak and polemical. What’s the state board to do?

Likelihood that the state board will make minor changes, say it’s time to move on and applaud Newsom for including millions of dollars in the budget to train teachers on how to make sense of a document at odds with itself: 

Newsom recall

Other than their first initials, no one would mistake Gavin Newsom for Gray Davis. Newsom is dynamic; Davis was as colorful as his first name. Even with a pandemic and recession in his face, Newsom still got good marks in the latest PPIC poll, while Davis was unpopular. So far, the nascent effort to recall Newsom has mysterious donors but no big-bucks backer, which the ever-ambitious Congressman Darrell Issa was in 2003. Still, just as agreeing to triple the vehicle license fee led to Davis’ undoing, Newsom’s Achilles heel may be frustrated parents blaming him, rightly or wrongly, for not doing more to reopen schools. Is it coincidence that Newsom’s $2 billion plan to have the first fully masked kids marching to class by Feb. 15 falls one month before the deadline for collecting 1.5 million signatures to put the recall on the ballot?

Likelihood that recall proponents will narrowly collect enough signatures for a ballot vote?: 

Likelihood that Newsom would be recalled if it makes the ballot: 

Federal waiver

Last spring, with Covid forcing schools to close nationwide, California and other states received waivers from annual standardized tests for students in grades 3 to 8 and high school that the federal government requires. An early decision facing incoming Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona is whether to permit waivers for another year. His soon-to-be predecessor, Betsy DeVos, had said she wouldn’t have granted them. Cardona, in his current job as Connecticut’s secretary of education, has said he wouldn’t have sought one. Some civil rights groups back him. Opponents argue administering tests remotely would be impractical and flawed. Bringing back students for the purpose of testing would be cruel.

There may be room for compromise.

Likelihood that Cardona will keep testing but with a range of testing options and a longer deadline and not force states to use results for accountability purposes. That will make Joe Biden’s transition adviser for education, California State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond, very happy: 

The Endless Summer

Regardless of whether most students return to school in March, April or May, it won’t be soon enough for them to catch up on the learning they’ve missed and to heal the loneliness and hardship many have experienced in the year away from their friends and teachers. Newsom will propose big money for a lengthy summer program, with a Marshall Plan for disconnected seniors to get their diplomas. Not just the traditional drill and remediate, but also outdoor classes and science projects to remind them that school can be fun. Districts will have flexibility to spend on counseling, tutoring and after-school programs and to create a calendar to accommodate teachers and families. Most districts will augment state funding from their share of $6.8 billion that Congress passed in December for California’s K-12 schools.

Likelihood all of this will happen: 

People shortage

This year, a shortage of substitute teachers will likely limit some districts’ plans to reopen schools this spring. Next year, the shortage will mushroom as the state sees the biggest wave of retiring teachers and administrators in decades. Sheltered by a pay guarantee this year, many teachers will be enervated from the pressure of Zoom teaching and will call it quits. Veteran principals and superintendents, overwhelmed by family hardships they’ve witnessed and the multiple challenges they’ve risen to meet, from Covid renovations to food distribution, will cash out their CalSTRS pensions.

Likelihood that school districts, particularly in rural and low-income urban areas, will face a hiring crisis: 

Demographics is destiny

Covid-19 is precipitating demographic changes in California. The flight of unemployed, home-evicted low-income families to cheaper digs and the newfound freedom of middle-class parents to work remotely in Sacramento or Austin, in turn, will accelerate the pace of school enrollment declines in much of the Bay Area and coastal California. Add to that the potential drop in funding from families switching to homeschooling or private schools, and Los Angeles, San Diego and other urban districts will have a lot to worry about. The day of reckoning won’t come in 2021-22; districts will get to use this year’s guaranteed level of Covid funding for one more year. But they will start taking real attendance next fall and see dire financial consequences in the numbers. It could get ugly.

Likelihood of a new wave of job actions by teachers unions for pay raises districts say they can’t afford and lawsuits by charter schools denied approval for “financial impact,” starting next fall: 

Big school bonds

The vision of Covid peering on the horizon in early March may have contributed to the defeat of Proposition 13, a $15 billion school facilities bond last March. That and its unlucky number. But the pandemic’s devastation has laid bare the need for a bond, if not two, that the Legislature will consider putting on the spring 2022 ballot.

In setting the requirements for distance learning last year, the Legislature said districts must provide all students with internet access and a computer. Districts are still short a combination of 1 million hot spots and devices, and a lawsuit makes a good case for arguing a violation of kids’ constitutional right to education opportunity. Districts must find the money for computers, but the state must step forward, working with federal funding yet to come, to lay down fiber and install the antennas to make public broadband a reality.

The virus’ airborne transmission has exposed the danger that poor classroom ventilation systems pose to children throughout the state — and the lack of state funding to fix them. The problem is there is no statewide inventory to get a handle on the problem. But with dirty air joining leaky roofs as a call to action, the Legislature will vote on a big bond for K-12 and higher ed. Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, has introduced a bill to make it happen.

Likelihood that Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi’s proposed $10 billion broadband bond will be put on the 2022 ballot: 

Likelihood a much smaller one will: 

Likelihood that the Legislature will send to voters at least a $10 billion education facilities bond: 

Virtually certain

It may sound Pollyannish now, but the pandemic will change education for the good, in small, big and hard to measure ways. More dual enrollment courses with community colleges will — at least should — go online, open to more students. School districts will experiment with online team teaching and offer AP courses online on weekends and nights. Give districts more flexibility with schedules and instructional minutes — pay attention, Legislature — and they will start to reshape how, where and when schools operate. Teachers will apply the online technologies they’ve learned when they return to the classroom.

And smart districts will follow the lead of Anaheim Union High School District and Pajaro Valley Unified to establish virtual academies, with separate, skilled staffs to compete with online charter organizations and meet the small but permanent demand for quality distance learning.

Likelihood that Anaheim Union’s Cambridge Virtual Academy will grow enrollment at least 50% and at least a dozen districts in the state open their own versions: 

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  1. Ellen Wheeler 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    This was very entertaining, informative, and thought provoking. Thanks.