California Special Session Yields Education Changes

Published October 10, 2009

California lawmakers met in special session in September to debate an ambitious package of legislation that would overhaul part of the education code and put the state in competition for more than $4 billion in federal stimulus dollars.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) called the special session on August 20 in response to a challenge in July from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. At stake is $4.35 billion in federal “Race to the Top” grants attached to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. California is currently ineligible for the money because of a 2006 state law barring education officials from using student test scores to evaluate teachers’ performance.

Need for Cash

Schwarzenegger says California needs the federal stimulus money to backfill $6.1 billion the legislature cut in July from the state’s $58 billion K-12 education budget. But state teachers unions say using a single state test score to grade instructors is unfair. SBX5-1, sponsored by Sen. Gloria Romero (D-East Los Angeles) and Sen. Bob Huff (R-Glendora), would do exactly that. In addition, it would expand public school choice, lift the state’s charter school cap from the current limit of 1,250, and direct additional dollars to the bottom 5 percent of schools that consistently miss state-mandated academic proficiency goals.

“If we are going to improve our educational system, we must evaluate teacher performance,” said Huff, vice-chairman of the state Senate Education Committee. “Evaluating student performance is a key part of any comprehensive teacher evaluation. [SBX5-1] will help us find and clone our excellent teachers, as well as mentor our lower-achieving teachers to help them teach better.”

Hailed As Accountability

School reformers hailed the bill as a crucial step toward accountability.

“We need to look at how much learning growth, or value added, occurs for every student under a teacher’s tutelage, and using longitudinal test-score data is a vital tool,” said Lance Izumi, an education policy analyst with the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute.

But Izumi cautioned opposition from teachers unions will slow reforms regardless of what the legislature does. The California Teachers Association (CTA), which claims to represent 340,000 teachers statewide, argues California law already lets local school districts link student and teacher data.

“Evaluation of teachers should remain at the local level,” CTA President David Sanchez wrote in an August 3 letter to Duncan. “That is a function of the local school district.… [T]here is no need to create another level of state bureaucracy to link student and teacher data.”

Opposing Database

CTA officials do not want a statewide database to track low-performing teachers who may wish to find work in another district. The union also insists on protecting teachers with greater seniority. But reformers point out the lack of an effective statewide system led to widespread and indiscriminate teacher layoffs in the wake of California’s recent budget crisis.

“Teacher effectiveness played no role whatsoever” in determining which teachers would be laid off, noted Lisa Snell, director of education and child welfare policy studies at the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles. Instead, school districts went by seniority. “If all your new teachers receive pink slips, you have to lay off more teachers to receive the same savings,” Snell said.

Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) writes from southern California.