Ed Finance Watch: New Federal Education Law

January 27, 2016

What the New Federal Education Law May Mean for CA

During their January meeting, the State Board of Education focused on the implications of the new law on California’s own accountability system and policy goals. The board kicked off their meeting with a presentation on the contents of the 1,000-plus page law.

Much of the structure of NCLB – including the federal testing requirements and most funding streams – remains the same. There are some major changes, however, that shift power away from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) and back toward the states. States now have greater authority to define their own standards and accountability systems. Although states still must identify the lowest performing schools, the mix of indicators that they can use to do so are more flexible and holistic than test scores alone. Meanwhile, the law clearly restricts the federal power to dictate teacher qualification, curriculum, or assessments and makes it harder for the DOE to deny NCLB waivers.

One of the biggest questions remaining about ESSA is when the law will fully take effect. Some provisions, such as the stricter standards for rejecting a waiver, were effective immediately. Other provisions of NCLB expire at the end of this academic year and the system will not be fully implemented until 2017-18, leaving two years of significant gray area on how states and districts should proceed. There has been little guidance so far on implementation and even less so for the handful of states like California that have not been granted a waiver from NCLB. (California’s waiver status may be changing, though, as the Board voted to apply again now that the new law is in place.)

California officials were heartened by the major areas of alignment between ESSA and recent state policies and many expressed commitment to keeping California’s goals front and center Board Member Sue Burr urged that the focus of the conversation stay on the state as a leader of the process rather than on conforming to new federal rules. SBE President Mike Kirst and Superintendent Tom Torlakson cosigned a letter urging the feds to maintain state flexibility through the regulatory process.

State Board Continues Accountability Debate

In addition discussing the new federal rules, SBE spent several hours of their meeting discussing the next steps for the Evaluation Rubrics, the accountability system currently being piloted as part of LCFF.

WestEd presented a more detailed version of the Quality Standards for graduation rates, one key indicator in the Rubrics. The pilot has generated a largely positive response from districts, but the online version will have to be designed carefully to allow for both simplicity and depth.

During the presentation, several board members expressed concerns with the process. Some worried that the current format does not encourage a strong enough focus on equity when determining the overall success of a school or district. Board members also expressed that the process had gotten too far in the weeds and asked to see the big picture across a wider range of indicators. Looking at the whole system, they noted, is critical for alignment with the federal law and for determining how many districts are going to receive interventions or assistance.

Advocacy groups also lined up to express concern during public comment. Most notably, a group of organizations including Californians for Justice, Children’s Defense Fund and the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color put forth a coordinated and coherent push to make School Climate and Engagement a “key indicator” in the rubrics, often drawing on the voice of students. Related comments supported the use of suspension data and chronic absenteeism as research-based and actionable measures that may be preferable to average daily attendance. Others noted the need to control for the special case of dropout recovery and alternative schools, to continue the focus on a single aligned system, and to look at actual gap closing instead of just subgroup data. After these comments, board member Burr tempered expectations for change noting that the board was unlikely to require new data collection.

Governor Brown’s Proposed Budget Stays the Course for K-12

On January 7, Governor Brown released his proposed $170 billion budget for FY 2016-17. As in previous budgets, the Governor leveraged better than expected growth in the economy and state revenues to drive increases to education spending. The budget provides K-12 schools with $10,591 per student for the upcoming year, an increase of about $3,600 per student since the depths of the state budget crisis in 2011-12.  With this increase, the implementation of LCFF financing is 95 percent complete and well ahead of schedule. 

The budget also proposes a $1.6 billion early education block grant program for preschool based on the principles of LCFF and drawing on existing Proposition 98 funds. In postsecondary education, the Governor put forth investments in the state’s university and community college system that will prevent further tuition hikes.