good news in golden state

How new evidence bolsters the case for California’s education policy rebellion

California Governor Jerry Brown advocates for increased education funding in 2012. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Corbis via Getty Images)

In recent years, California has gone its own way on education policy.

In 2013, the governor temporarily suspended its standardized tests, a move then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan called illegal. Low-performing schools faced few, if any, consequences for several years as the state paused its accountability system. And the state is now sparring with the federal government again about how to identify struggling schools under ESSA.

Sacramento or Washington, D.C. shouldn’t dispatch “little busy bodies to run down the halls and chide the teachers,” Democratic Governor Jerry Brown, who spearheaded this philosophy, has said.

It’s amounted to a decade-long rebuke of the federal government — and drawn sharp criticism from civil rights groups, who worry that the state hasn’t done enough to track whether money meant for disadvantaged students actually reaches them, among other issues.

But some recent evidence gives a boost to what supporters call the “California way.”

A key worry of the civil rights groups has been that the state’s funding system, enacted under Brown in 2013 and which has given more districts more to spend and allowed them to decide how to use it, hasn’t benefited California’s most disadvantaged students.

One study — released last week through the Learning Policy Institute, a left-leaning education think tank — found otherwise. The additional money led to notable gains in high school test scores, and students whose schools got an extra $1,000 per pupil each year in grades 10 through 12 were 5 percentage points more likely to graduate. Those gains were just as large, or larger, among poor students and students of color.

Another study, released by University of California, Berkeley researchers last summer, tells a similarly positive story. It found that elementary and middle schools in California districts that received extra funding scored higher than similar schools in districts that just missed out on additional dollars. In this case, Latino students saw the biggest gains.

The studies are consistent with a larger body of research showing that students benefit when schools have more money to spend. But it’s notable here that vulnerable students are still benefiting from these policies without much state oversight.

Meanwhile, a survey released last week by the University of Southern California showed strong support among parents for California’s colorful approach to displaying school performance. California uses a dashboard that includes a school’s ratings on a number of metrics, and doesn’t sum them up with a single score or letter grade.

This display has drawn criticism from advocacy groups and newspaper editorial boards as confusing. But when shown a sample dashboard, about three in four parents surveyed said it was easy to understand and seemed like an effective way to communicate a school’s performance.

The three reports are hardly the final word on these issues. The same poll that showed support for the school dashboards also found that parents who thought schools had gotten worse in the past few years outnumbered parents who said they’d gotten better. Other research has shown that tough accountability rules can boost test scores, particularly in math, and have long-run benefits for students. It’s also possible California’s funding boost would have been even more successful with stronger accountability rules. 

Districts may soon have to tell the state more about how they’re spending money, as concerns about transparency have prompted Brown to recently propose new reporting requirements.

Ryan Smith, the executive director of Education Trust – West, a civil rights and education group, is still not sanguine about the state’s policies.

“Moving the ball down the field five yards is not the equivalent of winning the Super Bowl,” said Smith. He pointed to a report from his group that applauded the increase in spending in high-poverty districts but found disparities in students’ access to counselors, librarians, and advanced courses.

“When we ask the state what are the supports that you’ll be providing to low performing schools, they continue to kick that can down the road,” Smith said. “We still have an accountability system that’s removing safeguards for black, brown, and poor children.”

Scott Roark, a spokesperson for the California Department of Education, said the state is implementing a tiered support system for struggling districts that ranges from providing workshops and classroom coaches for teachers to “more intensive interventions.”

“California has moved away from a ‘sanction and punish’ approach to accountability that was implemented under the No Child Left Behind Act,” he said.

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.

First Person

Denver teachers are stepping up. It’s time for Colorado voters to do the same.

PHOTO: Kirsten Leah Bitzer

I’m a Denver social studies teacher, and I am striking today with my colleagues as we fight to make teaching in Denver schools a sustainable career.

Yes, it must be noted that Denver Public Schools is top-heavy, and more of the district’s funds should be directed toward professionals who have direct contact with students. But amid this pitched battle between district and union, it’s also important to realize that our current moment does not exist in a vacuum.

Twice in the last six years, we’ve watched ballot initiatives that would have significantly increased Colorado education funding fail. Amendment 73, which lost last fall, was projected to raise $1.6 billion a year. Much of this revenue would have gone to local districts, which could have boosted teacher salaries and added programming for students.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights played a significant role in creating this situation, through its draconian limits on our representatives’ ability to raise additional needed funds and its requirement that ballot measures effectively be presented to the public with the costs as a headline and the benefits as a footnote.

But there are other forces at work here, too. Last year, the state’s Chamber of Commerce and business-oriented lobbying groups celebrated the demise of Amendment 73, the latest attempt to bring Colorado’s education funding to an appropriate level — even as some business leaders have expressed concern over the lack of fully prepared graduates.

The result? Denver Public Schools’ and the teachers union’s proposals are currently separated by $5 to 8 million. While our state’s $345 billion economy booms, we are fighting for scraps.

It shouldn’t be this way. An investment in teachers is an investment in our students, and in our civic and economic future. This is challenging, essential work that requires us to contend with competing answers to a recurring question: What is the purpose of schooling? As teachers, we work to balance many answers, from teaching our subject matter to instilling work skills, modeling interpersonal skills, developing citizens, and cultivating creativity.

As a social studies teacher, I’m driven to help my students understand the world as it is while also giving them the tools to reimagine it. So as my colleagues and I strike, I hope my students and my neighbors will think about what education activist Margaret Haley said 115 years ago.

“A grave responsibility rests on the public school teachers and one which no fear of opposition or misunderstanding excuses them from meeting,” she said. “It is to organize for the purpose of securing conditions that will make it possible for the public school, as a democratic institution, to perform its proper function in the social organism, which is the preservation and development of the democratic ideal.”

This is why we are organizing, today and in the future. We deserve pay that is commensurate with the demands of our work and a level of education investment that reflects the vital importance of our schools.

When the district and the union reach an agreement, which I am confident will happen soon, we will be closer to that goal — but we will not be there yet. Whereas teachers in West Virginia and Arizona were able to pressure their legislators to raise pay statewide, Denver teachers are stuck negotiating with a district starved of funding from above. Our state cannot endure this neglect forever.

The next time education is on the ballot, I hope Coloradans will invest in our students and our future.

Peter Wright is a teacher at Denver’s Northfield High School, serving students from Stapleton, Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, and beyond.