08/29/2012 03:23 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2012

California Legislature Goes for the Jugular on Obama's Education Goals

By Alice Johnson Cain, Pam Chirichigno and Tyler Malotte

As the political spotlight turns to Tampa and Charlotte, politicians in Sacramento are poised to quietly betray the future of the roughly 12 percent of the nation's children who attend school in California. The legislation on the table, AB 5, would turn back the clock on recent reforms and the hard work of teachers across the state. Not only that, but this fundamentally flawed bill has the audacity to take $89 million away from the state's highest-need schools in order to pay for its implementation.

California's economy continues to struggle to the extent that some teachers have been warned that they face an unprecedented 20 furlough days later this year. Yet the state legislature is prepared to enact a bill that would virtually ensure that the state loses out on $40 million through Race to the Top, and a much-needed ESEA waiver that would bring flexibility for state spending of $350 million in federal dollars on behalf of students statewide.

Why? First, the bill is directly at odds with the Obama Administration on including the use of data on student growth as one of multiple measures upon which educators are evaluated. This is a cornerstone of both Race to the Top and ESEA waivers, which require evaluation measures to be "closely related to increasing student academic achievement and school performance and... implemented in a consistent and high-quality manner across schools." Even more important, this is a change that teachers want. A recent national survey of teachers conducted by Teach Plus found that more than half of teachers, including 70 percent of early career teachers, support the use of student growth measures in their evaluations.

Los Angeles Unified has invested a lot of money and intellectual capital over the last two years in developing a rigorous and effective teacher evaluation model that has been lauded by education experts, teachers, parents, and other stakeholders as progressive and a step in the right direction. Teachers have been at the table in this process. For example, teachers and other community leaders from Teach Plus, Future is Now Schools, and Communities for Teaching Excellence have worked over the past year to develop a strong set of recommendations for how to best incorporate AGT (Academic Growth over Time) into the new district evaluations that have already been piloted by 900 teachers and principals.

But a poison pill in AB 5 essentially bars the state from using data in this way, completely disregarding the work of some of California's best teachers who have spent countless hours helping leaders think through new evaluation systems.

Earlier this week, two Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellows (and current LAUSD teachers) went to Sacramento to meet with state legislators with the intent to share insights on effective tools to improve teacher evaluation in a way that works for teachers. Despite the legislators' willingness to hear the teachers' suggestions, they were reluctant to make any meaningful changes at this time. As it stands, AB 5 will effectively nullify the progress that has been made in creating this promising evaluation system.

Second, under AB 5, the new evaluation system is not required to inform personnel decisions, including layoffs. This is surely not in the best interest of California's kids, and directly contradicts an ESEA waiver requirement. Looming layoffs are a very real issue in California. There has been ongoing litigation about the disproportionate impact of teacher layoffs on the state's most impoverished schools, some of which face losing most of their teachers if layoffs are based on seniority rather than performance.

If Congress imposes sequestration next year, California schools would lose at least $240 million, potentially increasing furloughs and layoffs. Legislators willing to forfeit future federal funds by voting "yes" on AB 5 are not rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic -- they are throwing life-preservers overboard as the iceberg looms.

Third, AB 5 repeals California's statewide requirement that principal job performance evaluations be based in part on student growth. It is unfair to expect students and teachers to perform and not hold those same standards for administrators. Here, once again, AB 5 is not aligned with the ESEA waiver criteria.

Surely it is not a coincidence that this bill, which has long been on the back-burner, was suddenly resurrected shortly after the landmark court judgment in Los Angeles Superior Court (Doe v. Deasy) that affirms the requirement that teacher, principal and assistant principal job performance evaluations include multiple measures of student growth. The backroom negotiations to squeeze this bill through in the final hours of this year's session are nothing less than a cynical "end run" around the court of law by those in the legislature who had hoped the judge would rule differently.

But that's not even the worst part. The most troubling piece of AB 5 is a little-noticed requirement that it would be paid for by taking away $89 million from the lowest-performing schools in the state (ranked in the lowest two deciles on the state's Academic Performance Index) -- schools with some of the highest percentages of English language learners and low-income and minority students. Currently, the state sets aside QEIA (Quality Education Investment Act) funds to the tune of between $500 and $1,000 per student. These funds are essential to the effective operation of high need schools. AB 5 diverts these dollars from the kids and schools that need them most, which will only serve to exacerbate our state's already unacceptable opportunity gap. If legislators move forward in passing this bill at the expense of these students and their teachers, they deserve to pay the highest possible price on November 6th.

Alice Johnson Cain is Vice President for Policy at Teach Plus. She previously served as a senior advisor to Congressman George Miller (D-CA). Pam Chirichigno teaches fifth grade at Buchanan Street Math, Science and Technology Magnet School, and was the 2012 LAUSD Teacher of the Year. Tyler Malotte teaches special education at Cochran Middle School. Both Ms. Chirichigno and Mr. Malotte are Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellows.