Wednesday, April 19, 2006 | San Diego City Schools was well represented on the stage at the 29th Annual EdSource Forum on California Education Policy held last month in Pomona. The conference addressed the question “Accountability and Funding: Can California Get It Right?”

The keynote speaker was California Secretary of Education Alan Bersin, former superintendent of San Diego City Schools. Carl Cohn, current superintendent of San Diego City Schools, was one of three California school district superintendents who spoke about the implications of accountability reform and school financing for schools and districts.

Like all students – grades two through 11 – in California public schools, San Diego students spend part of the month of May taking the state’s Standardized Testing and Reporting tests, as well as other state and federal tests, to determine their school’s ranking on the state’s Academic Performance Index.

The API, California’s accountability program, assigns a number between 200 and 1,000 to each public school to rate academic achievement. The system is designed on a growth model. The API scores are derived from the results of students’ STAR tests, which cover content in English language arts, mathematics, science and history/social science.

The STAR tests are aligned to rigorous standards set by the California State Board of Education and to the curriculum taught in California public schools. Schools whose API scores do not show significant growth each year receive special assistance from the California Department of Education. If the school receives federal funds, they are to be directed toward improvement strategies.

These test results are also used to determine whether schools have made Adequate Yearly Progress as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The federal system, a status model, focuses on the percentage of students in various subgroups (children living in poverty, English learners, special education and others) who score below the proficient level set by each state.

The NCLB Act expects that the percentage of students in all subgroups who score proficient will escalate over time to 100 percent by 2013-2014. If the annual target is not met, the school must develop intervention strategies. If these are unsuccessful, one of the interventions is to direct that the federal funds allocated to the school must be made available to parents who wish to enroll their children in another school.

Bersin talked at the EdSource forum about how the two different systems for measuring student progress – the state and the federal – are contradictory, but he stressed that each is essential. Their contradictions must be resolved, but their fundamental purposes must be retained, he said.

What might happen in San Diego if the two metrics are not harmonized? By the end of this school year, San Diego parents, taxpayers and especially realtors might read one week that their children and their neighborhood schools are showing satisfactory progress on the state API report, only to learn the next week that their neighborhood schools have fallen behind on the federal AYP proficiency standard.

One of the conference speakers called this a “train wreck” just about to occur. It will be felt most acutely in the “leafy suburbs” where parents are accustomed to hearing good news about their schools. Without the federal Title 1 money that is allocated to schools serving impoverished rural and urban students, how will these schools with a largely middle-class student population have the resources necessary to provide the interventions required by the federal NCLB Act? Will this result in a drive for vouchers and/or the demise of public education?

Bersin emphasized the concentrated efforts that his office, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell and the federal Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings are making to harmonize the two metrics. None of the stakeholders in public education wants to sacrifice any aspect of the accountability reform effort; all California students deserve access to a high quality, rigorous education.

Bersin told conferees that the harmonization effort is not complete yet, but failure is not an option. He said another metric needs to be developed that assesses the school climate – the culture of the school – because these factors profoundly affect students’ attitudes toward learning and teachers’ ability to work effectively with their students.

SDCS Superintendent Cohn, who has conducted extensive research on the effect of the AYP on urban school districts, agreed with Bersin that stakeholders in the educational enterprise are in favor of accountability. But he said they wish that federal and state education officials were held as accountable when they issue directives to school districts and teachers as school districts and teachers are held accountable for students’ learning progress. Cohn mentioned, for example, under-funded mandates that can cripple a school district’s ability to make needed improvements. State budget cuts further handicap a district’s ability to meet the needs of all its students.

Professor Jon Sonstelie, Professor of Economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of the book “High Expectations; Low Means,” urged the many school superintendents in attendance at the conference to assist his research team to determine the right mix of resources and funding needed to provide schools of every demographic description with the necessary support.

Dr. Ted Mitchell, chair of the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Education Excellence, told the conferees, “Accountability and school finance are two sides of the same coin.” His committee, financed by the Gates, Hewlett and Johnson foundations, is composed of leading California educators as well as citizens known for their interest in public education. He expects his committee’s work to be completed in 2007.

The committee’s work has just begun, but members are asking such questions as:

Mitchell was asked what effect the upcoming elections could have on his committee’s work. The questioner was probably remembering how four years of work on the California Master Plan for Education has not been implemented, even though the state legislature approved it. Former San Diego state Senator Dede Alpert, who chaired the Master Plan Committee, is a member of Mitchell’s advisory committee.

Mitchell stressed that the committee is operating separately from the governor and the Legislature. He said the bright light now being directed on the inadequate education provided to large segments of California’s school population makes the work of his committee essential, no matter who is in the governor’s chair or in the Legislature.

EdSource, established in 1977, is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides information, research, analysis and data on K-12 education issues in California. Its mission is to clarify complex education issues and to promote thoughtful policy decisions about public school improvement.

Before the all-day conference began, a questionnaire was given to the 240 participants. Conferees were asked to identify their positions or interest in public education, and then to answer questions about the adequacy and efficiency of resource distribution to school districts. Overwhelmingly, all groups of conferees said that resources were not adequate and that they were not being allocated efficiently.

Another question asked whether local districts should be granted the means to raise funds for their schools as they had before Proposition 13 eliminated property taxes as a major source of school financing. There was agreement by all groups that it should be easier for local school districts to raise funds.

The final question listed various proposals that have been advanced for allowing local districts more latitude in raising school funds. The answers to this question varied markedly.

The answers to the questionnaire clearly showed that the state’s preeminent role in school funding is not meeting the needs of local school districts and their students. The education community is looking beyond the equity provisions of the Serrano-Priest court decision made in 1976 to provide an equitable system in which all students receive adequate school funding to meet their specific educational needs.

If accountability and school funding should become balanced, profound changes could occur in the delivery of public education in San Diego City Schools both north and south of Interstate 8. How willing and prepared are we San Diegans to support those changes?

Frances Venn is a retired schoolteacher, former San Diego City Schools elementary school principal and past president of the San Diego Administrators Association. She chaired the study of SDCS Student Support Services for the League of Women Voters of San Diego from 2001 to 2003 and is currently a member of the California LWV education committee.

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