California Currents

New coalition agrees on next steps to improve schools, student achievement

In a document released Nov. 14, a spectrum of prominent education organizations, leaders and supporters is calling on Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom and the next Legislature to advance an extensive California agenda that includes increased, sustainable K-12 funding, expanded access to data systems and a fuller commitment to early childhood education.

The Alliance for Continuous Improvement laid out an eight-point action plan with specific strategies on a new website it’s calling California Education GPS. Co-chaired by Eric Heins, president of the California Teachers Association, and Wesley Smith, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators, the alliance continues the work, through a bigger coalition, of a task force on school improvement that reported to retiring State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson two years ago.

The 30 members include leaders of the California School Boards Association, the California Charter Schools Association, the California State PTA, advocacy groups Californians TogetherEducation Trust-West and Children Now, as well as research nonprofits Policy Analysis for California Education and the Learning Policy Institute.

Some members disagree on issues like the regulation of charter schools. But on next steps to continue the transformational changes of the past decade — new academic standards, a funding system under the Local Control Funding Formula targeting low-income children and English learners and an accountability system that stresses school climate and parent engagement as well as test scores, there is common ground, said co-chairman Smith.

The message from the alliance is to “stay committed to what makes sense and don’t dismantle the Local Control Funding Formula, which was the right innovation. The pendulum swing of education policy is a worry,” he said.

At the same time, he said, “Let’s not think Governor Brown has fixed education. We’re nowhere near where we should be in meeting students’ needs.”

“We are headed in the right direction but there are things we need to address. Invest and build on the structure in place,” said Saa’un Bell, strategy director of the youth-advocacy nonprofit Californians for Justice.

Samantha Tran, senior managing director of Oakland-based Children Now, agreed. On issues of common agreement, like the need to support educators, focus more attention on school climate and build a better data system, “we put a stake in the ground. I’m pleased with where we landed. There’s broad recognition that more work needs to be done,” she said.

The alliance intended the website to serve as a guide for parents and the public that may be unaware of the significant shifts in policy under Gov. Jerry Brown and the State Board of Education that he appointed. To support its recommendations, the website frequently cited findings in the project Getting Down to Facts, three dozen studies that looked at the state of K-12 education and its needs.

Not surprisingly, the alliance led its eight-step “journey to create a high-achieving public education system” with a call for substantially more funding to counter what the research nonprofit WestEd calls a “silent recession” facing districts due to rising teacher pension and special education costs, aging school buildings and, in many districts, declining enrollment.

The alliance wants Newsom and the Legislature to set targets to raise per-student funding to the level of the top 10 states in the U.S. — a goal that would cost tens of billions of dollars more per year.

But some of the proposals call for strategies for improvement that wouldn’t necessarily cost a lot of money. They include supporting opportunities to build parent involvement, adding a school climate statewide indicator to the California School Dashboard and supporting initiatives to build a diverse educator workforce.

The alliance’s eight goals are:

  • Increase equitable funding.
  • Provide all students with a broad course of study based on the state standards.
  • Ensure a positive school climate and conditions for all students and families.
  • Address teacher shortages in critical subject areas and regions of the state by expanding efforts to recruit, develop and retain a diverse educator workforce.
  • Expand access to affordable, high-quality early education, especially for low-income families, English learners and students with disabilities.
  • Invest in a comprehensive data system linking pre-K through higher education to help local planning decisions and spotlight promising practices and inequities.
  • Strengthen the emerging statewide system of supports for districts by promoting networks for improvement and providing technical help.
  • Encourage state leaders and state agencies — the governor, Legislature, State Board of Education and the California Department of Education — to evaluate their own budgeting and policy-setting responsibilities and timelines for making progress. In other words to hold themselves, not just others, accountable.

There are dozens of policy recommendations within the eight points — too many and too expensive to put in place at one time. The alliance has not chosen a list of priorities or whether to create one, although members may talk about this when they next meet, Smith said. “We have agreed on a foundation on where we want to go, but, like any strategic plan, the next question is, ‘What is the sequence?’”

“These are high-level strategies, not plug-and-play-into-a-bill recommendations,” said Tran, of Children Now.

The alliance is funded by the CDE Foundation, a Redwood city-based organization affiliated with the California Department of Education.

Story originally published by EdSource.