THE BLOG
07/29/2013 06:42 pm ET | Updated Sep 28, 2013

California Moving Away From Washington's Corporate Education Reform

California's shift to a new weighted student funding model represents just the most recent example of how Democratic state policymakers here are charting a different course in education policy than the Obama administration and Congress.

As I noted in a post last week, California and Washington have taken distinctly different approaches to achievement gaps that increasingly are most closely associated with economic inequality. Rather than focusing on firing "bad" teachers and closing schools, California has moved to direct more resources to low-income districts and increase local decision-making, with sanctions a last resort after support and technical assistance have failed.

Other examples of the divergence between California and Washington abound. It's not just that Gov. Brown and Secretary Duncan failed to come to terms over a waiver from No Child Left Behind when nearly 40 other states have. While the feds have pushed for greater linkages between student and teacher data, Brown (with the unions quietly cheering) vetoed funding to implement a teacher database, CALTIDES.

In March, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, headed by Brown's appointee Linda Darling-Hammond, pushed back against the federal predilection to ensure teacher quality by de-emphasizing preparation standards in favor of a holy grail of downstream effectiveness measures. The Commission voted to ramp up pre-service training requirements for interns teaching English learners and in-service supervision requirements for all interns, particularly those teaching ELs. And Washington's darlings, Teach for America and the charter school lobby, suffered a rare loss when the credentialing commission determined "innovation" can't excuse putting teachers who know little or nothing about teaching English as a second language in front of English learners.

Beyond the determination evidenced by the state's new school funding formula to focus on poverty head-on, the biggest divergence between Washington and California is over the use of standardized test scores for accountability purposes, which has been firmly ensconced in D.C. policy since No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was enacted and has been largely adopted by the Obama Administration. Governor Brown, however, has denounced standardized testing and its narrow measurement by fill-in-the-bubble, starting with his 2009 Race to the Top comments through to his most recent State of the State speech.

While the federal Department of Education soon plans to propose new regulations bringing K-12 test scores to teacher education accountability (among other things, limiting federal student aid to students in teacher preparation programs if their prior graduates haven't produced high enough student test scores), Brown and the Legislature have called for a new "holistic, multi-dimensional" accountability system with the Local Control Funding Formula legislation. By October 2015 the California State Board of Education must adopt a set of evaluation rubrics along these "holistic" lines to determine when districts are to receive technical assistance or later intervention or ultimately possible trusteeship.

The candidates for inclusion among the evaluation rubrics include more than a dozen academic and school climate measures, including rates of graduation, student suspension and absenteeism, English learner reclassification rates, Advanced Placement course exam scores and percentages of students qualifying for admission to the University of California and California State University.

It remains to be seen whether California's future accountability system, focused on multi-dimensional outcome evaluation, technical assistance and support, with intervention and sanction as a last resort, will square with the future federal accountability system under the next version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA; commonly known as NCLB) or whether the state will continue to be forced to operate two accountability systems, one state and one federal. It's a fair bet, though, that Washington, particularly its Republicans, have become weary of NCLB's federal prescriptions and will adopt a new ESEA that gives states much broader leeway.

One thing is for certain: Other than getting on board with the Common Core State Standards -- which Brown sees as a way to move away from the fill-in-the-bubble tests -- California's governor and Legislature, both influenced by the teachers unions and both solidly in the Democrats' camp, aren't reading from the same education policy book as Washington these days.

Is it too much to hope that Washington will begin taking notice and start moving toward the anti-poverty educational policies being pursued in the state where one in eight public school students attend school? Or perhaps the best we can hope for is that continued partisan gridlock in D.C. will continue to create opportunities for California to go its own way.

John Affeldt is Managing Attorney at Public Advocates Inc., a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization that challenges the systemic causes of poverty and racial discrimination, and is a leading voice on educational equity issues. He has been recognized by California Lawyer Magazine as a California Attorney of the Year.