School Beat: A New School Year Starts in High Gear

by Lisa Schiff on August 22, 2013

San Francisco’s public school students filled their classrooms this week, kicking another year of study and growth into gear. While the summer break often feels too short to many kids, to the adults involved in education activism this year it was practically non-existent. A host of major policy changes at federal and state levels transpired over the past several months, changes that have big, not well-understood implications for our city’s schools and kids. Our basic task–ensuring that educational experiences are constructively challenging and productive for all children—will be familiar to families and educators this year, but the environment around that essential concern is undergoing a significant transformation.

California’s new funding and accountability plan, or more accurately Governor Jerry Brown’s plan, the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) was officially adopted early in the summer, but the actual implementation and its impact are realities yet to be fleshed out. The principle goal of LCFF is to revamp how state money gets to schools in order to achieve greater funding equity relative to need. A second and also extremely important goal is to streamline all of the many different sources of targeted monies into a much smaller number of revenue flows to capture efficiencies and replace byzantine complexity with transparency. Finally, LCFF is intended to move authority for how funds are spent to districts and their school boards, and transition accountability roles more to the community level. LCFF’s final articulation, however, reinvested much of that authority back in the State Board of Education and the State Superintendent of Public Instruction’s office.

Needless to say, the implications of the above power distribution are not at all clear. Much remains to untangle and in the midst of it all will be the community—families of students who will need to more than ever before to find strategies for holding decision makers at all levels accountable, from the classroom teacher to the Governor. In early August, LCFF feedback sessions were held. The timing was unfortunate since so many families were obviously either be away or unfocused on school issues. Hopefully there will be more now that school is underway and such issues are more likely to capture the attention of parents. Future School Beat columns will announce these events if they are held and will also attempt to parse out LCFF’s implications and opportunities.

LCFF is part of a budgetary overhaul that includes allocating significant state money into the implementation of the new national Common Core State Standards that will require tremendous investment of new resources for educational materials, teacher training and assessment tools. Common Core has been a requirement of the federal government’s competitive grant, market-based approach to education, conveniently expanding opportunities for the large educational “suppliers” such as the Pearson corporation. States have incrementally adopted the new untested standards, but in California the swap has been primarily in order to win federal funding. Though losing in that game, Common Core remained a reality to be contended with. So though we are now hopefully seeing the first of many years of increased funding for our state’s schools, we are sinking over a billion dollars of additional state money into the implementation of this experimental, and many would argue unnecessary, change that is only partially completed as the assessment tools are not slated to be finished until the next school year.

Adoption of the Common Core Standards was one of the requirements for the recent granting of waivers for eight California school districts, including San Francisco Unified (SFUSD), from the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements. An old story by now, NCLB mandated that all public school children in the U.S. be proficient in reading in math by 2014. This logical impossibility proved insufficient to motivate a new reauthorization of federal education policy, leading Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to launch instead a waiver program that states could apply to, similar in many ways to his Race To The Top (RTTP) competitive grant program.

Though California as a state never qualified for a waiver, these eight districts have joined together under the auspices of an entity called CORE–California Office to Reform Education–which will oversee the districts’ accepted proposals for educational goals and accountability. Much remains to be understood here, including what specifically will change for our students; the role of this new entity, it’s authority and how it will be held accountable; what the exact guidelines will be for evaluating teachers and principals and how were they developed; and how CORE intersects with the planning and accountability requirements for LCFF. While relief from NCLB’s nonsensical deadline is good, it’s not clear what we may have traded for in its place and some are expressing their concerns. Future School Beat’s will explore these issues more completely.

Lurking in the policy background is a new version of federal education policy, the Strengthening America’s Schools Act (SASA). A first reading indicates that SASA is only modestly preferable to NCLB. School and district “Report Cards” will continue on, though added to them will be useful information such individual school funding levels. Lots of standardized testing still persists, though alternative assessments can also be used. Academic growth has replaced simplistic performance targets, but there remain logical flaws in the measure of school success towards helping students achieve that growth. Support for private market experimentation is generously sprinkled throughout, especially in the area of teacher and principal training. It’s difficult to predict where this legislation will end up, if it will pass and in what form if it does, but SASA appears to have more staying power than past efforts. Again, stay tuned for more analysis on this in the weeks to come.

While the potential for positive outcomes from the above changes may be debated by some, most families in San Francisco were probably delighted to learn about the just-in-time-for-the-first-day-of -school passage of Tom Ammiano’s bill ensuring that transgender students can be true to their gender identity when using school facilities and participating in sports teams. In an environment where we are still arguing for sufficient support for basics like libraries, complete academic offerings, and reasonable classroom sizes for all age levels, every victory supporting the fundamental dignity of our children is worth celebrating. This bill is no exception to that sentiment and hopefully it will be but the first of many constructive changes we can usher in this year.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco.

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