How Gov. Brown fought the federal government on education policy — and won
Matt Barnum | June 28, 2016
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This is the first in a three-part series examining California’s approach to education data and school accountability. Part Two explores how the elimination of certain data systems has limited educational research in one of the country’s most consequential states. Part Three will consider what the next era of accountability in California might look like under the new federal K–12 education law.
“Write your impression of a green leaf.”
This appeared on an exam that California Gov. Jerry Brown took as a student and it’s stuck with him ever since, he said in an interview with The Atlantic: “This is a very powerful question that has haunted me for 50 years, but you can’t put that on a standardized test.”
His point is that efforts to quantify education are doomed to fall short because of the inherent complexity, necessity of human judgment, and subjectivity of “correct” answers.
It’s a view that seems to have deeply shaped Brown’s ideology, and by extension California’s public schools, which serve over six million students in grades K-12. During his tenure, Brown has been one of the foremost critics of federally driven efforts to use data to improve education — and one of the most effective.
If Washington, D.C., went to one extreme, in focusing on test-driven accountability policies, as some argue, California has gone to the other: placing a lengthy pause on school accountability, devolving control to local districts, eliminating certain data systems, and declining to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores.
Challenging the wisdom of Washington, D.C.
Jerry Brown, a Democrat and son of a former California governor, was first elected to that office himself in 1974, serving two terms, but later failing in three runs for president and a campaign for U.S. Senate. By 1999, setting his ambitions lower, Brown had become Oakland’s mayor, and then in 2007, the state’s attorney general.
In 2010, he was elected governor once again and easily won re-election in 2014. Entering office in the wake of the economic downturn, Brown defied clear political labels, both cutting social spending and raising taxes to balance the budget, while maintaining solid approval ratings. (Brown will not be able to run again in 2018 due to term limits.)
In 2009, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was solidifying his own agenda, one that encouraged states to expand data systems, connect student test scores to teacher evaluation, and turnaround long-struggling schools. But Brown, then attorney general, had other ideas. In a remarkable letter — notable for the sharp tone directed at a powerful federal official from his own party — he criticized Duncan’s proposed Race to the Top program:
“The basic assumption of your draft regulations appears to be that top down, Washington driven standardization is best. … You are not collecting data or devising standards for operating machines or establishing a credit score. You are funding teaching interventions or changes to the learning environment that promise to make public education better, i.e. greater mastery of what it takes to become an effective citizen and a productive member of society. In the draft you have circulated, I sense a pervasive technocratic bias and an uncritical faith in the power of social science.”
Brown vs. Duncan; Duncan blinks
While the federal government, under Duncan and his boss, President Obama, has been a strong backer of using test scores to judge teachers and schools, California, under Brown, has moved sharply in the opposite direction.
In 2013, as California was implementing the Common Core, Brown signed a law suspending the state’s testing and school-rating system; the bill was backed by the state teachers unions and Tom Torlakson, the state schools superintendent. The new policy meant students would take field tests not designed to track their individual growth; in fact, data from the tests would not be shared publicly whatsoever. Duncan said this was a violation of federal law, and threatened to withhold funding, in a dispute that would last months.
Eventually Brown would win the game of chicken with Duncan, whose department caved, promising not to pull federal money, which would have meant cutting off over a billion dollars, largely to districts serving poor students, and from a state that carried huge weight in the Democratic party.
California extended the school rating moratorium in 2015 — meaning the Golden State has not had a comprehensive school rating or consequential accountability system for three years.
The state is now working to design a new system that will comply with the federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), adopted last year. This new procedure will not be ready until the 2017–18 school year, a California State Board of Education spokesperson said.
The state has also bucked national trends on teacher evaluations. Spurred by federal incentives, the vast majority of states require student test scores to be a part of teacher evaluations, as of last year1. California was one of just five states that put no such condition on teacher performance ratings2.
Meanwhile, a rogue group of several large districts in California promised to evaluate teachers based in part on student achievement and build more robust data systems. This led the federal government to award those California outliers a waiver from No Child Left Behind, a move opposed by Torlakson and the state teachers unions.
The state teachers unions have generally backed Brown’s approach on testing and accountability.
“We have a good relationship with the governor,” said Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers, the smaller of the two statewide teachers unions. “I think the governor is in step with us in terms of his view on the overuse of testing.”
The larger, 325,000-member California Teachers Association (CTA) has supported Brown’s gubernatorial campaigns, endorsing him in 2010 and 2014, and backing him with over $6 million in independent contributions in his 2010 election. A CTA spokesperson declined to comment.
But Brown is not easily categorized. Like Duncan, he has generally embraced charter schools, which in some ways epitomize his view of expanding local autonomy and innovation, but are viewed negatively by many teachers unions.
Brown started two of his own charter schools in Oakland, as mayor, even writing a commentary about them for the journal Education Next. As governor he vetoed a union-backed bill that would have been banned for-profit charter operators.
More equitable funding but absent transparency
While opposing Washington’s data-driven reforms, Brown also set about pushing his own proactive education agenda: reworking school funding so that districts had more flexibility over how money is spent, with extra resources going to higher-needs students.
That was the goal behind his Local Control Funding Formula, or LCFF, passed in 2013, which based school finance on students’ level of need and reduced restrictions on how state resources can be used. Brown also led the push for a successful state ballot initiative to raise education funding. (California has long lagged behind other states in spending per student, but has made progress in recent years under Brown.)
This was lauded by many, including some who have been critical of Brown’s approach to data.
“[LCFF] represented a massive equity investment — we were talking about actually making sure that the resources were generated [for] high-needs kids,” said Samantha Tran of Children Now, a nonprofit advocacy group in California.
But ensuring state money reaches and genuinely helps its intended target has proved challenging. A series of reports by groups that backed LCFF say it’s unclear how districts are spending state dollars and that the fiscal data hasn’t been transparent.
After complaints from advocates, the state recently ruled that the Los Angeles Unified School District had defied spending rules and would need to redirect hundreds of millions of dollars to its most disadvantaged students. It then granted the district a one-year reprieve.
“Districts are not fulfilling the transparency requirements of how they are increasing and improving services to high-needs students,” said John Affeldt, of the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates, which produced one of the studies.
(Read The 74’s Conor Williams on how California districts used money meant for needy kids on across-the-board teacher pay hikes and hiring assistant principals)
And the documents for spending, called Local Control and Accountability Plan or LCAPs, often run hundreds of pages, morphing into the very same bureaucratic, compliance-driven exercises that Brown said plagued top-down accountability systems.
“The plans just became really cumbersome, so it’s hard for anybody to understand; it’s not a transparent plan,” said Peter Birdsall, executive director of the California County Superintendents, whose members review districts’ LCAPs.
A request for comment from Brown’s office was directed to the state Board of Education. Julie White, the board’s director of the communications, wrote in an email that efforts are underway to revise the LCAP template in order to “maximize transparency and ease of use for stakeholders; simplify structure and language; provide clear instructions; and support efficient and effective local planning, reporting, and implementation processes.”
Birdsall said the challenges don’t overshadow the benefits of the new funding system: “Given the amount of time we’ve had to implement [LCFF]… I think it’s gone very well.”
Still others worry that the new system is too light on accountability “To me, the ‘A’ in ‘LCAP’ … is more or less fictitious,” said Morgan Polikoff, a USC professor and member of a recent state accountability task force.
The system is still in flux, as the state is developing the rubrics for judging whether districts have met their performance goals, while also designing a school-level accountability system to comply with ESSA, and trying to ensure the system as a whole is coherent.
Under current law, there is a mechanism for California to intervene in districts that fail to meet performance goals for certain student groups in three out of four consecutive years.
Such interventions would be at the discretion of the state superintendent and Board of Education and could not supersede union-negotiated contracts. The state rubrics for judging district-level progress will be finalized later this year, so it will still be several years before a district could face mandated state intervention.
California has also created a new agency called the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence to continuously “provide advice and assistance” to districts.
Brown says “busybodies”; other say “accountability”
In Brown’s telling, teachers and schools have been descended upon by an army of “little busybodies to run down the halls and chide the teachers,” he told CALmatters, dispatched from Sacramento or, worse, D.C.
Larry Ferlazzo, a high school teacher in Sacramento and popular education blogger, said “without a doubt” he agreed with that perspective.
“For too long and in too many places, decisions about education policy have been made without teachers being key players in that, and under Gov. Brown and Superintendent Torlakson, they’ve really changed that,” he said.
California has avoided the fierce backlash to the Common Core standards that many states faced. While New York, for instance, has seen opposition from teachers and high testing opt-out rates, California has experienced virtually no opt-out movement and solid support from teachers for Common Core. Hitting pause on school and teacher accountability likely had something to do with that.
As Louis Freedberg, executive director for the California news site EdSource, put it, “California can focus its energies and resources on trying to make sure the Common Core standards deliver on their promises, rather than trying to defend them against attacks from unhappy parents, teachers and lawmakers.”
But some say that the state has gone too long without a system for evaluating schools.
Marshall Tuck, who narrowly lost a 2014 race for state schools superintendent, said he agreed with the initial break on accountability during the transition to Common Core, but that moment had passed.
“This will be our third year where we’ll have no accountability system on the Common Core test … I think it’s too long a period of time,” said Tuck, who said he’ll “most likely” run for superintendent again in 2018.
Shirley Weber, a state assemblywoman from San Diego, said, “Every system needs to have ongoing accountability — there should never be a pause in accountability.”
Ryan Smith, head of Education Trust – West, a California-based education and civil rights group, said the state can’t wait much longer for a meaningful way to hold schools accountable.
“I understand that these things take time, but I think we have a hard time telling parents and community members that … there’s no accountability for three to five years. That is the span of a student going into middle school and graduating high school.”
1. The new federal law, however, removed the incentives to connect test scores to teacher evaluation, and already there have been efforts in several states to eliminate such requirements. (back to story)
2. There is a currently a lawsuit arguing that California law does in fact require that student test scores be considered in teacher evaluation, but that this requirement is not being enforced. The lawsuit is in its early stages. (back to story)
This article was published in partnership with The 74.