School accountability: Weber off to good start

By The San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board | 6 a.m. April 24, 2016

Education is an all-important issue in modern America. That’s why every president dating back to 1993 has embraced reforms meant to improve schools, help students and promote accountability among teachers, principals and superintendents.

But in California, Gov. Jerry Brown has not only opposed reforms of the sort championed by President Barack Obama, he’s marginalized reformers as being trendy and unserious. He’s also moved to eliminate a statewide testing program that provided a single, easy-to-grasp grade of school performance. Brown has done so while overseeing an overhaul of school financing with 2013’s Local Control Funding Formula. Billed as a reform — a way to ensure additional state funds went directly to help English-language learners and foster children — it is the opposite. With Brown’s blessing, LCFF has become the equivalent of a block-grant program funneling billions in no-strings-attached money to large urban districts, starting with Los Angeles Unified.

Thankfully, a local lawmaker looks at this picture and sees something wrong with it — even as her higher-profile colleagues duck the issue. We refer to Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, who last week persuaded the Assembly Education Committee to unanimously pass a bill that would resurrect state efforts to regularly assess public schools.

AB 2548 would require districts to measure student progress in such “key variables” as achievement in English, math and science; progress toward proficiency among English-language learners; high school graduation rates; and absenteeism. This information would be easily available on a state website and would be used to guide decisions on when schools or districts need assistance or intervention.

A former San Diego school board president and San Diego State University professor, Weber struck out with a 2015 tenure reform measure after teacher unions objected. This time around, her reform push is off to a great start — and she’s got some vocal allies in the effort to improve education accountability. In February, Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, rebuked the State Board of Education for promoting vague measures of school quality, and Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, ripped the Brown administration for seeking to make it difficult to determine if Local Control Funding Formula dollars were actually going to help English-language learners and foster children.

Perhaps Weber’s most prominent ally in this push is the Obama administration. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act — the new federal education law passed last year to replace 2002’s No Child Left Behind Act — states are subject to less intrusive federal rules. But as a condition of receiving federal education funds, states must still conduct empirical assessments of all students and intervene when schools graduate less than two-thirds of their students, rank in the bottom 5 percent of statewide assessments, and consistently have ethnic subgroups with weak test results. If Weber’s bill survives without being gutted in the legislative process, it would appear to comply with the law’s minimum requirements and clear the way for California to receive billions in federal education dollars.

It’s a sad commentary that it apparently takes a federal threat to get the Golden State to address what Education Week magazine calls its “accountability vacuum.” But California’s besieged education reformers will take whatever victories they can get. Thank you, Shirley Weber.