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.

school facilities

Cold temps close Memphis state-run schools, highlighting bigger issue of repairing costly, aging buildings

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary was one of four school closed Tuesday due to heating issues.

More than 1,200 students in Tennessee’s turnaround district stayed home from school on Tuesday because their school heating systems weren’t working properly.

Temperatures dipped below 35 degrees, and four schools in the Achievement School District opted to cancel classes because of boiler issues: Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Frayser Achievement Elementary School, Corning Achievement Elementary School, and Martin Luther King Jr. High School. In addition, Kirby Middle School decided to close Wednesday.

Aging school buildings in Memphis have caused headaches and missed school time for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, which occupies buildings rent-free from the local district. Just last week, Hamilton High School in Shelby County Schools closed for two days after a power outage caused by heavy rain, and Kirby High School remains closed because of a rodent infestation. Kirby’s students are being housed in different schools for the rest of the semester while repairs are made to rid the school of pests. And Shelby County Schools had to deal with the dropping temperatures on Tuesday as well, with Westwood High School and Oak Forest Elementary ending classes early due to their own heating issues. Westwood High will remain closed Wednesday.

But Tuesday’s closures for state-run schools point to a larger issue of facilities: In a city full of older school buildings needing expensive updates, who pays, and who does the work? There is a formal maintenance agreement between the two districts, but the lines that divide responsibilities for repairs are not always clear.

Shelby County Schools is responsible for bigger fixes in the state district, such as new roofs or heating and air conditioning systems, while the state district’s charter operators are responsible for daily maintenance.

Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, said they are working with Shelby County Schools to resolve the heating problem at the three elementary schools, two of which share a building. But he said that the issues won’t be fixed by Wednesday, and the schools will remain closed.

“We know it throws off our teachers and students to miss class,” White said. “It’s an unfortunate situation. And it underscores the larger issue of our buildings not being in good shape.”

The charter organization Frayser Community Schools runs MLK Jr. High School as part of the Achievement School District, and a spokeswoman for Frayser said they were handling the boiler repairs on their own as opposed to working with Shelby County Schools. School will remain canceled at the high school on Wednesday.

“Currently our maintenance team is working with a contracted HVAC company to rectify the heating issue,” Erica Williams told Chalkbeat. “Unfortunately, it was not resolved today, resulting in school being closed Wednesday. While our goal is to have school as soon as possible, we want to make sure it’s in a comfortable environment for our students.”

The state district was created in 2012 to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools by taking over local schools and giving them to outside charter organizations to run. Shelby County Schools has a crippling amount of deferred maintenance for its school buildings, including those occupied by the state district, that would cost more than $500 million. The Shelby County district prioritizes how to chip away at that huge cost based on how many children are affected, the condition of the building, and the type of repair, spokeswoman Natalia Powers told Chalkbeat, adding that the district has made some major repairs at state-run schools.

But Sharon Griffin, chief of the Achievement School District told Chalkbeat previously that one of her goals is to resolve problems more quickly with Shelby County Schools when a major repair is needed to avoid lost class time.

Still counting

Jeffco bond measure that had been failing pulls ahead in narrow race

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Students work on breathing exercises during a yoga class at the end of the school day at Pennington Elementary School.

Update: Over the weekend, the bond measure pulled ahead and is currently headed toward passage, with 50.3 percent of the vote. We’ll continue to update this post as new results come in.


Vote tallies released Thursday in Jefferson County show that a $567 million bond request is down by just 132 votes, opening up the possibility that it might yet pass.

We previously reported that Jefferson County voters had approved a $33 million local tax increase but turned down the bond request. At midday Wednesday, just 48 percent of voters had said yes. The gap was roughly 7,000 votes, and the trend hadn’t changed since the first returns were posted Tuesday evening. It appeared to mark the second time in two years that Jeffco voters had turned down a request to issue debt to improve school buildings.

But by Thursday evening, with additional ballots counted, the margin by which Jeffco Measure 5B was failing had narrowed significantly. The 132-vote margin is currently within the window that would trigger an automatic recount. A mandatory recount is triggered when the difference is one half of one percent of the number of votes cast for the higher vote count, according to officials from the Secretary of State’s office.

Backers of the tax measures are holding out hope the result could change.

District officials said they plan to use the proceeds of this year’s tax measures to raise teacher pay, increase mental health support for students, beef up school security, expand career and technical education, improve science facilities, add more full-day preschool, and buy classroom materials and technology.

On Wednesday, Katie Winner, a mother of two students in Jeffco schools, told us the two tax measures were closely tied and both equally needed.

“I want to know what voters were thinking,” she said. “I didn’t see one without the other.”

We’ll keep tabs on the counting and update you as soon as we have a final tally.