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Sacramento’s game of hide-and-seek with public education

Rae Belisle | March 12, 2018

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Editor’s note: This week the State Board of Education will vote on the latest iteration of California’s plan to comply with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), including if and how the state will choose to identify and improve its lowest-performing schools and provide targeted support to high-need students.

Sacramento is playing hide-and-seek with our public schools. While a disturbingly large number of schools have been chronically under-serving their students for decades, the political establishment prefers to tuck those schools away from view, betting that few will undertake the daunting effort it takes to go searching for them.

They’ve made a good bet. Few parents have the time, energy or education policy experience to go hunting for the facts on which schools are actually helping all their students learn, which ones are in desperate need of support, and which ones are eking it out for affluent kids but still failing to deliver an equal education to every child.

For those curious enough to examine how their local school compares to one nearby or others throughout the state, the bureaucrats in Sacramento would point them to a so-called dashboard. Unveiled in the spring of 2017 after years of development, the dashboard, still being “tweaked,” is touted as a parent-friendly way of showing school quality.

The truth is, the dashboard is the first trick in Sacramento’s hide-and-seek strategy. The endless color-based pie charts make it impossible to compare individual schools, giving bureaucrats all they need to manipulate and obfuscate the data on how schools are actually doing. Last year when many schools were flagged red – the lowest performing category – they just changed the dashboard criteria. Suddenly many of those schools improved to orange. With an orange flag, there is no need to provide any extra help.

Those still on the hunt for facts about individual schools won’t find any individual school transparency or accountability in the California plan for complying with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The law signed by President Obama requires states to demonstrate how they’re identifying and improving their lowest-performing schools and providing targeted support to high-need students. It turns out the “California Way” does not allow for that kind of transparency or academic accountability, which explains why the U.S. Department of Education sent back California’s plan and insisted on major changes.

Twenty-six states have already received ESSA plan approval, but Sacramento continues to resist needed changes to align its plan to President Obama’s goals, including transparency on equity of opportunity and identifying and helping the lowest-performing 5 percent of individual schools. With its hide-and-seek dashboard system, the state says it can’t identify those schools.

Five years ago, the state changed school funding formulas. This played right into the elaborate game of hide-and-seek. The new formula promised more money for the students who need extra support, but where exactly does that money go? Is it reaching the classroom? It’s impossible to know because the state does not track the money to the local neighborhood schools where teachers and students sit in classrooms every day. Families are simply expected to trust that local school district bureaucrats are directing the money to the kids and teachers who need it the most.

After all that hide-and-seek, here’s perhaps the most important fact that has been hidden: compared to other states, California’s schools are at or near the bottom.

Fourth grade is widely considered a benchmark year for gauging whether students are on track to succeed. California fourth-graders are in 48th place in math and reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress known as the “Nation’s Report Card.” The situation is grimmer for California fourth-graders who come from low-income families; they rank 49th in reading and dead last in math.

Despite the sunny optimism for which California is known, and despite elected officials’ progressive fights on immigration and the environment, Sacramento is burying a dark truth: California public schools fail most kids, especially Latino, African American and high-poverty students who rely the most on public schools. More California children of color and low-income children are below grade level than the entire K-12 population of Massachusetts. That’s not progressive. That’s disgraceful.

Sacramento needs to stop playing games – that’s what kids do. We need state leaders to be honest and show parents know what is really happening at their children’s schools.

Rae Belisle is a former member of the State Board of Education and now is an independent education consultant. 

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