California Likely to Reject Federal Options to Reform Failing Schools

With California facing a cash-strapped state budget, some choice advocates are calling for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to follow his tough reform talk by expanding parental options in education.
In his January 2008 State of the State speech, Schwarzenegger touted his intention to be the first governor to use “powers given under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act to turn challenged districts around.” Currently, 98 California school districts have fallen short of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) targets enough to qualify for corrective action.

Each of the 98 districts has failed to meet its basic academic progress goals for at least three years, some for as many as seven or eight years.

Not Far Enough

Schwarzenegger’s plan has focused on providing state-approved technical assistance to help local school districts craft plans to meet NCLB accountability standards, expand education data access and capabilities, and offer new avenues to license teachers.

Dr. Vicki Murray, senior education fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, a think tank in Sacramento, praised the governor for his reform but said it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

“It’s a good first step, but the real issue is that no parent should be expected to make their child a sacrificial lamb to the schools that fail to improve year after year,” Murray said. “Choice should be real alternatives, [and] it should be universal and immediate.”

Under NCLB, school districts have to offer students in failing schools free transportation to another school in the district. But many California districts have only a few schools from which to choose, and in some cases, they don’t have any schools demonstrating academic success. As a result, Murray says, this sanction does not offer families much hope.

“Sure, parents can pull their kids out of a school,” Murray said. “But when so many schools are underperforming, what’s a parent to do?”

Seeking Remedies

Clint Bolick, director of the Goldwater Institute’s Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation in Arizona, agrees about the shortcomings of NCLB.

“The law itself is deficient in not providing for meaningful remedies,” Bolick said.

Bolick noted many districts are not even enforcing the weak provisions the federal law affords. In 2006, in his former position as director of the Alliance for School Choice, he helped launch legal action against California’s Los Angeles Unified and Compton school districts for failing to comply with the federal law’s choice provisions. The complaint is lodged in the state secretary of education’s office, where it is awaiting action.

Bolick said the secretary “has the power to issue monetary sanctions” but has yet to follow through. He hopes the governor’s pronouncements will turn things around.

“It would be absolutely titanic to have Gov. Schwarzenegger on board with a strong enforcement of No Child Left Behind, even though the law does not provide perfect remedies,” said Bolick.

Budget Deficit

The direction of California’s reform discussion has shifted since reports emerged in December 2007 revealing the state faces an overall budget deficit of more than $14 billion.

“A lot of people think reform [means devoting additional financial] resources, so that put a lot of rain on their parade for 2008,” said Murray.

But Fred Glass, spokesman for the California Federation for Teachers (CFT), believes the budget shortfall can be cured by restoring a rescinded vehicle license fee and instituting a severance tax comparable to those in other oil-producing states. He said Schwarzenegger’s plan is meaningless if the deficit cannot be overcome.

“You can dress up reality any way you want, but the reality remains that it’s hard to make progress when you’re starving the system,” said Glass, citing a 2008 Education Week survey that ranked California 43rd in per-pupil funding.

CFT’s slate of proposals to fix underachieving school districts includes reducing class sizes by hiring more teachers and contributing additional funds to programs that provide mentorship opportunities between new and experienced educators.

Corrective Action

Murray says that type of approach has been tried repeatedly without favorable results.

“Schools prefer the softer sanctions, like tweaking the curriculum and providing more teacher training,” Murray said. “But, of course, that doesn’t do anything. You just look like you’re doing something, and you’re not fundamentally changing what’s being done.”

Instead, Murray would like to see the governor make use of the serious sanctions available to him under NCLB. Types of corrective action chronically failing schools could face include undergoing complete staff overhauls, being taken over by a private management company, or converting to charter schools.

Glass does not see a serious possibility of the governor following through with any of those actions, nor does he think it would help the state’s 98 underperforming districts.

“Those kinds of concerns don’t address the root problems,” Glass said.

But Murray sees a real opportunity for Schwarzenegger to set a bold new course.

“He is taking a strong stand against an ossified, recalcitrant system,” Murray said. “California could be the first state to really turn things around.”

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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