With new ears in capitol, scholars push K–12 improvements

March 6, 2019

Researchers hope new California leaders and legislature will heed advice on school equity

By Ross Brenneman

Associate Professor Patricia Burch, a co-director of USC Rossier’s Center on Education Policy, Equity and Governance, speaks with other attendees at a local convening around education policy. Burch also led a discussion on equity challenges facing L.A. (Photo/Ross Brenneman)

When any report comes out, the long-term effects might be hard to quantify. Some, like A Nation at Risk, can shift paradigms. Others spend time gathering dust on an office shelf.

For the team behind a recent and comprehensive report on the state of education in California, irrelevance is unacceptable.

Initially published in September, Getting Down to Facts II combines 36 studies into research briefs that explore a broad swath of K–12 policy topics central to school equity. The scholars behind the report have since been staging a series of events that bring together policymakers, researchers and practitioners to turn data into action.

Coordinated by Stanford University and disseminated by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE)—a non-partisan coalition of university-based researchers at the University of Southern California, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UCLA and Stanford—the report could have wide-ranging effects, as its first iteration did in 2007.

“There is an important window of opportunity right now with the new governor, superintendent of instruction, state board president and many new legislators to act on some of the needs identified in our research,” says Julie A. Marsh, a professor of education at USC Rossier and the university’s faculty lead for PACE.

And that means that on a Friday morning in February, educators and researchers have gathered in a conference room at the California Community Foundation in downtown Los Angeles to talk about paths forward.

‘We have to be focused.’

The original Getting Down to Facts paved the way for a number of reforms to California’s education system, including the Local Control Funding Formula, streamlined governance structures and multiple successful ballet propositions that raised taxes specifically to fund schools.

The updated report analyzes many of those changes and looks for resulting successes and shortcomings related to school finance, governance, accountability and equity. Region-specific events help sustain the report’s momentum by focusing on what the report means for, say, Southern California.

Marsh says that the events prioritize expertise from research and practice—attendees seemed to appreciate learning from the practitioner presenters “as much if not more than” from the researchers, she said.

“Our hope is that the convenings around the state will allow for us to move beyond the identification of problems and needs, to the identification of promising practices,” Marsh says.

To that end, while Governor Gavin Newsom and a host of new legislators have taken over in Sacramento, district leaders, grant foundations and education nonprofit organizations are also a target.

“We shouldn’t be in a situation where so many of our judgments about policy and practice are made based on intuition or inertia or what someone may have heard a year and a half ago at a conference, but are instead really supported by whatever evidence is available,” Christopher Edley Jr., a professor at UC Berkeley and co-founder of the Opportunity Institute, told attendees at the Los Angeles convening. “Or at least whatever theoretical understanding is available.”

Among some of the report’s findings: Large accountability gaps persist in California by race, ethnicity, income and English-learner status; students are behind before they even enter kindergarten; data systems aren’t refined enough. And perhaps above all else: Funding levels remain short of adequate. (While measures vary, California generally ranks near the bottom in terms of per-pupil funding by state.)

“We have to be really honest with ourselves about the need to increase funding in our public education system,” said PACE Executive Director Heather J. Hough. “You can’t have a conversation with people in school districts right now without this being the first thing they tell you.”

A USC Rossier/PACE poll conducted in January found California voters would support changes to state tax laws to improve school funding.

Long shelf life

Hough also pointed to critical money issues that could destabilize the education system, including pension costs, special education funding and facilities financing. Inadequate state funding was one of the central issues in January’s teachers’ strike in Los Angeles.

Marsh, a co-director of USC Rossier’s Center on Education Policy, Equity and Governance (CEPEG), said that CEPEG plans to use the information gathered in the local convening’s table discussions “as one of many sets of data informing a regional equity research agenda we plan to develop by this summer.” Marsh co-directs CEPEG with Professors Patricia Burch, Morgan Polikoff and Darline Robles.

The convening made one thing clear: LAUSD and other districts should not bear their burdens alone. Noting a nurse-to-student ratio of 1,000:1, Edley said it wasn’t an LAUSD shortcoming, but a California Department of Public Health shortcoming and a Medicaid shortcoming.

“If we’re not fully aware and fully engaged with the drivers of inequity, and only owning responsibility for doing the best that we can,” he said, “then we’re not really first-rate equity warriors at all.”

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