Do we really need someone in Sacramento writing three paragraphs in the California Education Code containing 1,132 words that lay out the rules for school field trips? How about state approval of lesson plans for farm labor vehicle training? Of course not. And from these, we see an opportunity to break the gridlock in our state capital.
State budgets this year face huge rev enue losses, thanks to the recession and the end of federal stimulus money. Each threatened interest group has mobilized to try to escape any impact but none as effectively as schools, which have a special weapon: the courts. The argument in the courts -- playing out now in New Jersey and likely soon in New York -- is simple: The state Constitution protects us from taking any share of the pain of the fiscal calamity.
In an unexpected action last summer, the Los Angeles Times published the ratings of teacher effectiveness for 6,000 teachers by name. This is a potential game-changer. The publication created a firestorm. The unions were apoplectic. A vocal set of commentators attacked this action from a variety of viewpoints. Nonetheless, it shows signs of spreading – to New York City and elsewhere.
No longer is education reform an issue of liberals vs. conservatives. In Washington, the Obama administration's Race to the Top program rewarded states for making significant policy changes such as supporting charter schools. In Los Angeles, the Times published the effectiveness rankings—and names—of 6,000 teachers. And nationwide, the documentary "Waiting for 'Superman,'" which strongly criticizes the public education system, continues to succeed at the box office.
New York City's schools chancellor, with the support of Mayor Bloomberg, wants to release the value-added test score results for 12,000 teachers - revealing for parents and the public the student learning gains attributable to each instructor. News organizations have requested the data; the city is ready to comply. The city's United Federation of Teachers has challenged the release, and a judge will decide next month.
I've spent many years looking carefully at such data. I know it can be incendiary; I know it has flaws. Still, I strongly support its release.
We are entering the season for dire warnings about the loss of teacher jobs unless school funding is improved. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has given high-level credibility to this story by providing administration support to Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s new $23 billion stimulus bill in Congress.
California's budget woes are known nationally. On May 19, voters overwhelmingly rejected a series of five ballot initiatives that were central to the state's plans for feigning a balanced budget. While there might be an element of sport in watching politicians flail around trying to deal with more than $20 billion of red ink, the stakes for California and the nation are huge. Perhaps the most significant impact will come through what happens to California's public schools
How to finance our schools remains controversial, and is the subject of continuous rancor in courthouses and statehouses across the nation. There are many movements, replete with Web sites and annual reporting, that advocate, among other things, proposals such as the “65 percent solution” and weighted student funding. None of the approaches that have been tried, however, has led to significantly improved achievement by students or has closed the nagging achievement gaps that continue to plague schools.
In the state of Washington, adequacy plaintiffs filed a new lawsuit in early 2007 that is expected to rely heavily on a report prepared at the request of a gubernatorial-appointed commission, Washington Learns. This report, "An Evidence-Based Approach to School Finance Adequacy in Washington," claims to present scientific evidence of exactly what needs to be done to bring everychild to proficiency as defined under state and federal law. The advance, if true, would go far beyond this specific court case and could revolutionize American education.
Now that the state Court of Appeals has once and for all settled the New York City school finance lawsuit, state and city officials must soon initiate the next necessary discussion, which should prove much more interesting — about what needs to be done to improve the city's schools.
The nation is watching to see what happens with New York City school finance. After a dozen years in the courts, the case of Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) v. New York is now back at the Court of Appeals for a final judgment about the added appropriations that the legislature must send to the city. This judgment is, however, unlikely to be the final statement. If the legislature must come up with an incredible sum of money close to the more than $5 billion currently on the table, it may well balk, precipitating a true constitutional crisis.
The PISA results came out recently, and they were greeted in the normal manner: The vast majority of U.S. citizens, both educators and populace, presumed that the discussion was about a bell tower in Italy and went on to something else. Germany was at the other extreme. Virtually every local newspaper covered the results on its front page.
After the Kansas City experiment, I figured that nobody with a straight face would suggest "throwing money at schools."
California's education finance system is broken in every way, but the real story is the dismal achievement of kids in California. What needs to be fixed is not just how schools are financed, but more important how the whole K-12 educational system is organized, and especially the incentives given to schools to do better.
The state of schooling in New York City returned to the news Thursday with the highest court coming down on the side that the city's schools fail to meet constitutional requirements. The court has now turned the spotlight back on the state Legislature to "fix things."
Arkansas is following some two dozen other states that have had to respond to a court finding that its current financing system is unconstitutional. These events are always traumatic, but—from a slightly different perspective—they offer enormous opportunity.