The Public Policy

Fool’s Gold?

Exploring education reform in California.

By 10.16.09

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California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state's Democratically-controlled legislature have become better-known for dysfunctional sparring matches and dueling tax increase packages than for any form of unanimous agreement. So the last month proved to be amazing as legislators agreed to pass a string of the Governator's school reform measures, including a measure that allows more parents to choose schools for their kids outside of the districts in which they reside, and, even more shocking, end a ban on the use of student test scores in evaluating teacher performance.

Certainly Schwarzenegger has earned his bona fides as a school reformer. After all, he has strongly backed a string of unsuccessful voter referendums since replacing the much-loathed Gray Davis six years ago. Among his lowlights: A plan to increase the time it takes for teachers to gain lifetime job protections through the granting of tenure was widely defeated thanks to a $15 million campaign against it by state and local affiliates of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers.

But why did legislators, beneficiaries of $346,300 in donations from the unions in 2008 alone (along with campaign help from their rank-and-file), turn their backs on their erstwhile allies? The opportunity to tap some of the $4.5 billion in so-called "Race to the Top" funds, provided through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, has proven to be too tempting to ignore. Declared Schwarzenegger this week after signing the bill: "These bills represent an important first step in bringing California's students and schools closer to billions of much-needed federal funding."

California isn't the only state that has needed prodding from the federal government to reform its woeful public education system. But the state that used to set the pace for innovations good and otherwise has fallen behind its sister states -- including Florida, Texas, Indiana, and even the notoriously dysfunctional New York State -- in taking steps toward reform.

Befitting California's position as America's state and its role as primary soundstage for disasters real and celluloid, the academic and fiscal morass of its public education system is staggering. It is home to Los Angeles Unified -- the nation's second-largest traditional public school district -- where two out of every five high school freshmen drop out before senior year. Only New York City's public school system is home to a greater concentration of the nation's dropout factories.

But L.A. Unified is no isolated case. Twenty-six percent of the state's school districts are ranked as academically failing, according to the U.S. Department of Education. They teach 1.6 million children -- or one-fifth -- of the state's student population. As a result, some 100,000 California high school students drop out before graduation every year. Notes Robert Manwaring, a researcher at the Education Sector, a reform-minded think tank: "[California] have lots of low performing schools, and not much urgency about fixing them."

Becoming a teacher in California can be way too easy. A newly-minted teacher in California can gain tenure in just two years, so long as she gets a satisfactory rating. This is rather easy since most school districts don't conduct meaningful performance evaluations. By the way, only eight other states set a lower bar for gaining such job protections. Dismissing a teacher for poor performance or a felony conviction that isn't a sex offense, can be onerous. A school district may spend as much as $500,000 to go through a 10-step process that involves a panel whose members include a person appointed by the target of the dismissal itself and unlimited number of appeals.

Even after all that, there is no guarantee the teacher will be tossed out. The Los Angeles Times, for example, noted the case of L.A. Unified teacher Shirley Loftis, who kept her job despite a decade-long record of incompetence that featured incidents of students pulling down their pants and fighting with each other under her watch. This is why a mere 100 dismissal hearings were held between 1996 and 2005, according to the state's Legislative Analyst's Office, the legislature's fiscal watchdog agency. Save for Schwarzenegger's quixotic effort, California officials have done little to attempt the kind of teacher quality reforms being undertaken in Indiana or even the District of Columbia.

The No Child Left Behind Act has required all states to develop data systems for meaningfully measuring student and school performance longitudinally, or over years or decades. California has just gotten around to compliance this month with the launch of its CALPADS system after seven years and numerous delays and snafus. But the system still doesn't provide such important data such as individual student attendance records, or allows the student data it does collect to easily follow a child as he transfers from one district to another. Compared to Kansas, Virginia, and, most notably, Florida -- whose data warehouse is ranked among the best by the Data Quality Campaign for providing student performance information all the way to college graduation to every school and university -- CALPADS seems absolutely archaic.

Simply collecting data is a nightmare for bureaucrats, teachers, and parents alike. The state education department requires school districts to report through 125 different data collections. This includes reports on demographic data, school spending, and even a calculation of foreign students (which is appropriately called SNOR). Few of the reports offer useful data or in a consumer-friendly form. The School Accountability Report Card, which is supposed to be useful to parents, is merely a confusing mishmash.

This isn't exactly the education system with which Earl Warren, Edmund "Pat" Brown, or Ronald Reagan would be acquainted. During the 1950s and 1960s, the state was a pioneer in public education with such developments as the sprawling modern public university system and the transformation of so-called normal schools into the community college concept.

The state even pioneered school choice in 1991 when it joined Minnesota in becoming the first states to allow the formation of public charter schools. The state has authorized more of the publicly funded, privately run schools than any other; there is also one charter school for every 9,300 children, a higher ratio (and thus, more opportunities for choice) than the national average.

Despite all this and the presence of notable outfits such as charter school operator Green Dot Schools and the Milken Family Foundation, education reform has been an afterthought.

The very matters plaguing the rest of American public education -- including the low quality of teacher training at schools of education and the success of the NEA and AFT in insulating teachers from performance management -- are certainly factors. But reform-minded governors such as Jeb Bush in Florida and politicians such as former Indiana higher education commissioner Stan Jones have overcome such obstacles. For California, its troubles also rest on its tangle of political fiefdoms -- a legacy of the last century's Progressive era -- fiscal mismanagement, and a lack of political will.

State oversight of education is divided among an array of political operatives, including a state board of education and secretary of education -- both appointed by the governor -- and an elected state superintendent. At the local level, there are 967 school boards (which operate schools), 58 county superintendents (who provide technical services and occasional oversight) and 72 community college boards. Each of them, along with the thickets of political bodies within the state's two university systems, thwarts efforts by the others, ensuring lack of accountability.

The initiative and referendum process that has captured the rest of California's budget into the hands of interest groups is also bedeviling the school system. A three-decades-old referendum requires the state to spend at least one-third of tax dollars on schools, spurring spending booms and restricting the kind of fiscal flexibility needed for school reform. A long-term problem lies with the state's teacher pension fund, which is mired in a $22 billion deficit; in August, Fitch Ratings cut the pension's bond rating from AAA to AA-plus. Another $16 billion in unfunded retirement healthcare spending also looms on the horizon.

Meanwhile California's politicians spend more time on sparring matches than on policymaking. Additional funding for CALPADS was one reason behind last year's overwrought budget battle between Schwarzenegger and the legislature. Schwarzenegger and Superintendent Jack O'Connell have had their own run-ins, including a battle over revamping the state report card.

Money has a funny way of focusing the mind, and the interest in obtaining the Race to the Top funds has led to quick action by both Schwarzenegger -- who called a special session of the legislature just for this purpose -- and the legislature. Yet the state may still not get the money. Even with recent overtures, the state lags behind its peers in the seriousness of addressing its low graduation rates and abysmal teacher quality. Then there is the politics. "The thought of the teachers union, school districts, the business community and other key stakeholders getting on the same page... is hard to believe without some serious leadership," according to Manwaring.

But for the first time since the birth of the charter school movement, California may actually stop lagging behind the curve. And possibly, get ahead of it.

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About the Author

RiShawn Biddle the editor of Dropout Nation , is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB EraHe can be followed at Twitter.com/dropoutnation.