By Dan Walters | CALmatters Columnist
California has spent tens of billions of extra dollars on its K-12 school system in recent years on promises that its abysmal levels of academic achievement — especially those of disadvantaged children — would be improved.
And what have those massive expenditures — a 50 percent increase in per-pupil spending — and a massive reworking of school curriculums accomplished?
Not much, the latest results from annual testing indicate.
Mathematics and English tests based on “Common Core” standards were administered last spring to half of the state’s 6-plus million K-12 students, those in grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 11.
It was the third round of such testing and the so-so gains seen in last year’s version stalled out in 2017 with virtually no change in the numbers of children meeting or exceeding standards in both vital learning areas.
The more important data point is that with essentially no gains in 2017, fewer than half of California’s children are meeting English standards and fewer than 38 percent in math.
That should be seen as a major crisis, but when one looks at the numbers for black and Latino kids, and those classified as poor or “English learners,” they even more shameful.
While three-quarters of Asian students and two-thirds of whites hit the competency mark in English, fewer than a third of black students and just over a third of Latinos did. For poor kids, it was 35.5 percent and for English learners, a minuscule 12.1 percent.
The scores on mathematics were even worse, just 37.6 percent overall, 19 percent for blacks and 25.2 percent for Latinos.
The best spin state schools Supt. Tom Torlakson could muster was a weak “I’m pleased we retained our gains,” followed by a rationalization that “these tests are far more rigorous and realistic than the previous paper and pencil tests.”
The low achievement of disadvantaged children is obviously important for their individual futures, but what makes it critical to the state as a whole is that they are about 60 percent of the state’s K-12 students.
Five years ago, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature enacted the Local Control Funding Formula that freed up billions of dollars that had been designated for specific educational programs in the past, pumped more billions of new dollars into the system, gave extra money specifically for improving achievement of “high-needs” children and allowed local school officials to spend it with only light oversight from Sacramento.
The theory advanced by Brown and other advocates was that local educators would spend the money wisely and effectively. Critics in the “equity coalition” of school reformers and civil rights groups have argued that left to their own devices, school officials would succumb to political pressure to divert the extra money into salary increases, pensions and other areas rather than concentrate it on the targeted kids.
The contending factions have battled constantly in the Legislature, in the state Board of Education, and in the courts over accountability for spending and outcomes.
As the newest test results were being issued last Wednesday, it was announced that civil rights groups and parents in Long Beach Unified School District had won a ruling from the Los Angeles County Office of Education that the district had misspent $24 million in funds meant for disadvantaged kids.
The juxtaposition of that ruling and the test scores implies that as the critics feared, the changes wrought by Brown, the Legislature, Torlakson and others in the political/educational establishment are falling short of meeting their 2012 promises
Tellingly, however, in the just-concluded legislative session, efforts to reform their supposed reforms were rejected, including a proposed audit of how the extra money meant for high-risk kids has been spent.
How Brown and legislators can blithely ignore the reality of what’s not happening in the classroom is one of the state’s most puzzling enigmas.