Trump administration tussling with California over federal education mandate

The Trump administration turns out to share the Obama administration’s disappointment with California’s efforts to hold schools and school districts accountable for improving students’ academic performance.

After President Barack Obama took office in 2009 and installed Arne Duncan as secretary of education, California initially participated in their “Race to the Top” program in which states which adopted reforms that used metrics to measure student, teacher and school performance received additional federal education dollars. California’s proposal didn’t qualify for federal grant consideration, however.

But by 2011, when Gov. Jerry Brown replaced Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and made changes in the state Board of Education, the state government had lost interest in working with Duncan, with a sticking point being his push to measure teachers based on standardized test results.

In December 2015, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to replace 2002’s No Child Left Behind Act as the framework of how the federal government dealt with states on education. While ESSA contains far fewer of the federal mandates that made No Child Left Behind unpopular with teachers unions and small-government conservatives alike, it did have one accountability provision. It requires every state to identify schools which are in the bottom 5 percent of statewide assessments; graduate less than two-thirds of students; and have minority subgroups with poor and unimproving results. Every state is supposed to help these schools with “improvement strategies.”

Education official faults reliance on ‘Dashboard’ over test scores

But the Trump administration doesn’t believe California has met this requirement with what even state officials acknowledged was a “minimalist” proposal to the U.S. Education Department. The main sticking point is the state’s view that its recently adopted California School Dashboard program – in which schools are rated on a variety of categories, including suspension rates, not just test scores – should be used to determine which schools fall in the bottom 5 percent.

In a Dec. 21 letter, Jason Botel, principal deputy assistant secretary under U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, criticized the idea of using the Dashboard instead of more precise measures of student performance; rejected the state’s plan to give districts discretion in determining how to improve underperforming schools; and noted that the plan failed to disclose how the state would meet its requirement to track the number of teachers who were in the classroom despite inadequate, inappropriate or incomplete credentials. The 12-page letter also cited many other issues with California’s plan.

As the EdSource website reported, the U.S. government’s reaction paralleled the position of education reform groups in California, which have criticized the California School Dashboard as a bad idea that will make it more difficult – not easier – to tell if a school is improving.

But Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and state school board president Michael Kirst strongly defend the state’s proposal and say it should be given a chance to work. This is why the state board voted at its Jan. 18 meeting to only make minor changes in its proposal to the Trump administration, with the exception of considering revising how the dashboard would be used to determine underperforming schools.

$2.6 billion in federal funds at risk if administration plays hardball

The question now is what will the Trump administration do. If it rejects the California plan, in theory it could withhold $2.6 billion of the $8 billion in annual federal education aid that California receives. That’s a little more than 3 percent of Golden State school funding from all sources. Such action would feed the narrative that the Trump White House is picking on liberal California.

But such action could also trigger bipartisan blowback from the Senate, which passed ESSA on an 85-12 vote, and the House, which approved it 359-64. While lawmakers went along with the limited accountability requirement, they also stressed the need for states to be able to figure out their own education needs.

Last February and March, both chambers voted  with White House backing – to block Obama administration rules meant to strengthen accountability provisions under ESSA.

The website of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce depicted the votes as one more message that the federal government needed to stop playing the role of “national school board.”

There is no timetable for when the U.S. Department of Education will respond to California’s actions. So far it has approved more than 30 plans submitted by states while raising questions about plans submitted by other states. 

Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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