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What awaits California schools in the new year: The 6 big education stories we’re following in 2019

Laura Greanias | January 6, 2019

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For California students, parents, teachers and education advocates, 2019 looks to be opening with a bang.

In the first full week alone, a new governor will be inaugurated and teachers in the state’s largest school district are poised to strike — and Los Angeles could soon be followed by Oakland.

Also, just months after the record-breaking campaign spending on the gubernatorial and state schools chief races, Los Angeles will hold what’s expected to be another expensive and hard-fought school board election.

Throw in precarious school district finances, an ambitious reimagining of L.A. Unified by its new superintendent, and so-far losing battles to combat declining enrollment and chronic absences, and 2019 is sure to offer edge-of-your-seat viewing for education watchers near and far.

Here are six big school stories we’re watching in 2019:

1. Will Los Angeles see its first teacher strike in 30 years?

On the day after a neutral fact-finding report sided with the district’s salary offer, United Teachers Los Angeles set Jan. 10 as its strike date.

A strike can only be averted if L.A. Unified takes “a dramatically different approach” to contract negotiations, UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl said at a Dec. 19 news conference. Last week, Caputo-Pearl agreed to a UTLA meeting with district negotiators this Monday — the first day of school after winter break.

The nation’s second-largest school district and its teachers union have held polar opposite views of L.A. Unified’s finances during the nearly two years of embattled contract negotiations. The district insists it is on a “fiscal cliff” and in danger of a county takeover. UTLA maintains that the district is sitting on reserve funds that are desperately needed in schools to lower class sizes and hire nurses and other support staff.

A strike would have “a huge impact” on L.A. Unified financially, said Aaron Garth Smith, an education policy analyst for the right-leaning Reason Foundation. Neither side, he said, “is really talking about those long-term debt obligations,” such as hefty health benefits costs. And if L.A. Unified caves to UTLA’s demands, it will only “make a bad situation worse,” he said. “Anything that’s going to be spent is going to push [the district] closer and closer to that fiscal cliff.”

Smith added that “district politics” could even prompt parents who are already frustrated with the quality of education to take their kids elsewhere, exacerbating L.A. Unified’s declining enrollment problem. A strike “is the thing that could push them over the edge,” he said.

Read more on the run-up to a strike:

LAUSD, UTLA back to the bargaining table & more: 8 teacher strike updates you might have missed over winter break

LAUSD parents stuck ‘in the middle’ as Los Angeles braces for a likely teacher strike

New LAUSD guide tells parents how to prepare for a teacher strike and talk to their kids about it

UTLA wanted immigrant parents’ support for a teachers strike. Instead, parents wanted to know, ‘How would this strike guarantee a high-quality education for our children?’

2. Will LAUSD face a financial takeover?

As L.A. Unified braces for a strike by its teachers union which maintains that the district is hoarding cash, district officials are also having to prove to their county overseers that L.A. Unified will be able to stay afloat.

The Los Angeles County Office of Education, which is required to step in if a school district is nearing bankruptcy, has said the district’s continued use of deficit spending — meaning it is eating into its savings to cover its operating costs  — has led to a “drastic” drop in its financial reserves and “continues to be alarming.”

The county gave L.A. Unified until Dec. 17 to outline how it will reverse its march toward insolvency by either cutting costs or finding new revenues.

The county has 30 days to respond, which could put the delivery of the verdict on the fifth day of a teacher strike.

If the county is not satisfied with the district’s plan, it stated that it could choose to either send in a financial expert to collaborate with the district or install a fiscal adviser — someone who essentially takes over all financial decisions for the country’s second-largest school district.

Any new raises could weaken the district’s financial situation. The district has already agreed to a 6 percent raise for teachers — and says it has budgeted for that amount — but both county and state officials have expressed concern that any raises will be too expensive.

“We are concerned that any salary and benefit increase, whether paid from reserves, assignments, or other one-time resources, could adversely affect the fiscal condition of the District,” Candi Clark, chief financial officer of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, wrote in a Sept. 6 letter.

“As we have noted in previous letters, the use of one-time funding sources to cover ongoing salary expenditures is a key indicator of risk for potential insolvency,” Clark stated.

After hearing Clark outline her concerns to the school board in September, one board member predicted staffing cuts coming as soon as 2019. “Next year, we’re going to have to cut people … in massive numbers,” Richard Vladovic said. “If I were the superintendent, I’d be freaking out about this report.”

In another measure of L.A. Unified’s financial health, the district revealed in its annual audited financial report released in December that its unrestricted net deficit had nearly doubled from $10.9 billion to $19.6 billion between 2017 and 2018.

As state Sen. John Moorlach put it in an LA Daily News op-ed: It would take a $4,180 payment from every man, woman and child in the district to relieve L.A. Unified of its liabilities.

Read more on LAUSD’s finances:

LAUSD’s plan to stave off financial ruin and a potential county takeover: Cut 15 percent of central office staff and save $86 million

It gets worse for LAUSD: This week both the county and the state showed up to say, ‘Get your fiscal house in order or else we’re taking over’

‘LAUSD is not too big to fail’: School board members alarmed by LA County official’s dire financial projections — and warnings of the possible appointment of a ‘fiscal adviser’

3. Another Los Angeles school board election, another swing for the majority?

Less than two years after Los Angeles held the most expensive school board election in the nation’s history with campaign expenditures reaching $17 million, voters will again head to the polls in a swing school board election.

As in 2017, big bucks will likely be shelled out by unions and education reformers to win a majority on the seven-member board. Two years ago, a pair of seats were up for grabs, fueling donations and national attention. This time it’s a special election in March for just one seat, and only to fill out a term, through December 2020.

But the direction of the nation’s second-largest school district could be at stake. The new superintendent serves at the pleasure of the board, and with less than a year under his belt, Austin Beutner is poised to reveal his big plan in January for reimagining the school district — which he will need the school board to approve. Beutner was appointed by the board in May and vowed to bring change to a district where less than half the students are proficient in reading and math and slightly over half graduate eligible to apply to four-year California state universities.

Also at risk are ambitious goals the board’s reform majority has promised, like getting every student college or career ready and ensuring all students can read and do math at grade level by 2023.

Ten candidates, from parents to elected officials and educators, have qualified to appear on the March 5 ballot to fill the seat left vacant after former L.A. Unified board President Ref Rodriguez was forced to resign in July after pleading guilty to campaign money-laundering charges.

The backdrop for the early part of the 2019 campaign will likely be a teacher strike now that United Teachers Los Angeles announced in December they will walk off the job Jan. 10. It’s unclear how the pressure and upheaval of a strike, particularly if it’s prolonged, could influence the election.

Read more on the school board election:

10 candidates will be on the ballot in March to fill LAUSD’s vacant school board seat

‘I want my voice heard’ — Showdown in the boardroom as Latino parents balk at an attempt to name a replacement for Ref Rodriguez without their input

The clock is ticking: LAUSD board members have 60 days to decide how to fill Ref Rodriguez’s seat

4. Bilingual education’s rapid growth

In Los Angeles and across California, expanded dual-language schools and classes are expected to produce more and more biliterate high school graduates.

California voters approved Proposition 58 in November 2016, repealing an English-only initiative that had been in place since 1998 and allowing more schools to create bilingual or dual-immersion programs, where English learners along with native English speakers learn to master both languages.

Since Prop. 58’s passage, L.A. Unified, where nearly a quarter of students are English learners, has rapidly added more dual-language programs. There are 145 bilingual programs offered this school year, up from 87 in 2017, and the plan is to continue adding more.

In alignment with Global California 2030, an initiative which calls for increasing the number of school dual immersion programs in California from about 400 in 2017 to 1,600 in 2030. In L.A. Unified, “By 2025, our goal is to have 50,000 students in dual language programs who will be biliterate when they graduate,” Superintendent Austin Beutner said.

“We have more bilingual programs because our parents now feel safe that who they are, and what they’re bringing from home, is going to be honored at their schools while they’re also  learning English and working in our system, so I’m very proud of that work,” Lydia Acosta Stephens, head of L.A. Unified’s Multilingual Department, told LA School Report in an interview in August.

“The shift happens now thanks to Prop 58. The expansion of our dual language programs to support our English learners is not just for them to become academically proficient in English but also to become bilingual and biliterate. We want their parents to know that it’s OK to hold on to their home language,” Acosta Stephens said. “That’s a conversation that English Learning coordinators would be having with parents.”

While national test scores have largely stagnated — the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests spawned headlines about a “lost decade” for educational progress among nearly every student group — researchers have found one group whose performance has steadily climbed over the past 10 years: multilingual students.

Typically either first- or second-generation Americans — kids who speak multiple languages — tend to lag behind their solely English-speaking classmates. Since 2003, however, the gap in NAEP scores between monolingual and multilingual Americans has narrowed significantly, both for fourth- and eighth-graders, according to a paper published by the American Educational Research Association.

In an interview with The 74, co-author Michael Kieffer said that the steady improvement was due to teachers’ increased familiarity with the challenges of teaching material to kids whose first language is not English.

“It’s no longer an exception to the norm to have a student who is in the process of learning English. Now it’s the norm to have many students who are learning English, and that may incentivize and encourage educators to attain new schools and try out new strategies and techniques and do things a little differently.”

Read more on bilingual education:

New Study: Multilingual Students Have Made Huge Progress on NAEP Since 2003

New ways of teaching math to California’s English learners are getting results, report says

Dual language programs are so popular that LAUSD plans to double the number of schools offering them by next year

5. Mounting calls for a cap on charter school growth

2019 opens with powerful voices calling for slowing the growth of charter schools. California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, said after the June primary that he intends to sign legislation requiring charter schools to be more transparent with their finances and operations and to adhere to stricter conflict of interest rules on their governing boards, EdSource reported. He likely won’t offer the same protections of charters as has Gov. Jerry Brown, who generally supported charters and vetoed bills that called for more regulation.

Tony Thurmond, in his first news conference after defeating Marshall Tuck for state superintendent of public instruction, called for a temporary ban on any new K-12 charter schools in the state. He said the state has reached a “tipping point” with too many charters that have financially harmed public school districts, Politico reported. “I believe that we shouldn’t open new schools without providing the resources for those schools,” Thurmond said. “It is time to have perhaps a pause on the opening of new schools until we get clear about how we will fund any new schools. I’ve never used the word moratorium because I believe there may be places where it makes sense to establish a charter school.”

Newsom and Thurmond were elected with the backing of the powerful teachers unions.

Very few teachers at charters belong to a union, and when students leave district schools for charters, they take public funds with them. Declining enrollment in district schools also means a need for fewer teachers.

And in December, two days after setting a strike date, the head of the Los Angeles teachers union called for a halt to new independent charter schools in L.A. Unified. The call for a cap is not part of the union contract negotiations, but Alex Caputo-Pearl said he is bringing it up because “it’s out there in the conversation right now.” He cited Newsom, who “has looked into whether we need to pause,” and Thurmond, “who has proposed a moratorium on charter growth.”

In an immediate response to the announcement, LAUSD said: “This is not a subject of negotiations as charters are governed by state law. We cannot negotiate a cap on the number of charters with a bargaining unit.”

Read more on charter caps:

A day after mediation panel backs LAUSD’s salary offer, UTLA sets a January strike date

Thurmond targets charter schools

Superintendent candidates agree on need to review California’s charter school law

6. Combatting chronic absences

Despite task forces and reports and new initiatives like free tickets to sporting events, chronic absences have increased in each of the past three years in Los Angeles. School districts around the state are struggling to keep kids in school. In Manhattan Beach, parents are even asked to make a $47 donation each time a student misses a day of school.

Those on the front lines of battling chronic absenteeism welcomed last month’s addition of student absence data to California’s accountability tracker, the California School Dashboard. As a result, more school districts in the state could become “models” in tackling chronic absenteeism.

The dashboard rates districts, schools and student groups on performance indicators such as test scores using a five-color scale: red being the lowest to blue, the highest. Last month’s update means schools and districts with high levels of chronically absent students — defined as those missing 10 percent or more of the school year — are now identified with “orange” or “red” colors.

David Kopperud, a programs consultant with the state education department and chairman of the State School Attendance Review Board, told LA School Report that this change could incentivize districts to improve attendance rates in 2019. “I’ve been getting a lot of phone calls from those in the red or orange for chronic absenteeism and having a lot of discussions with them about what they can do,” he said.

Kopperud hopes more “model” school attendance review boards (SARBs) pop up statewide as well to mentor districts stuck in that red or orange designation. Model SARBs are local advisory boards recognized annually by the state for “exemplary practices to reduce chronic absenteeism and increase student attendance,” according to the department. Kopperud would be thrilled to have 30 model SARBs in 2019, he said. There were 16 in 2018.

Struggling districts “can get help from someone who’s actually doing the work,” he said. “That model of successful districts mentoring districts that are having problems with their chronic absenteeism rates is a really good model.”

Read more on student absences:

Saturday school and 1,000 Rams tickets — how LAUSD is trying to turn around a stubborn attendance problem

Easy money for LA schools: Get every kid to class one more day a year and generate $30 million

Taking your kid out of school for vacation? This California beach town asks parents to cough up the cash it loses for every absence

With Nearly 8 Million Students Chronically Absent From School Each Year, 36 States Set Out to Tackle the Problem in New Federal Education Plans. Will It Make a Difference?


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Esmeralda Fabían Romero and Taylor Swaak contributed to this report.

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