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EdVoice: California schools are failing the vast majority of students

Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine if only one in six African-American students in an entire state could read at grade level. Imagine if fewer than one in five Latino students were performing at grade level in math. Imagine if less than one third of students were proficient in either subject. Would you be outraged?

Wake up! This is the reality of California public education in 2018. The results from the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – better known as the Nation’s Report Card – paint a disturbing picture: California schools are failing the vast majority of students.

In fourth and eighth grade math and reading – according to this month’s NAEP results – California once again falls near the bottom of the nation. Eighth grade girls rank 41st in math. Latino eighth graders rank 43rd in reading. Low-income fourth graders rank 50th in math. Low-income students represent nearly 60 percent of California’s K-12 enrollment.

Administered since 1990, the NAEP is highly regarded because it provides periodic snapshots of student performance while tracking progress over time. The latest results are flat, with a persistent achievement gap, and only minor gains in 8th grade reading. These results confirm what we already know from our own annual statewide testing -- millions of students in California are below grade level in math and reading.

The lack of significant progress for students of color, now a majority of California’s school-aged children, should make failure to close gaps deeply troubling. African American eighth graders’ average reading score is 28 points lower than whites. That gap has not significantly improved since 1998 – 20 years ago. Latino fourth graders scored an average of 23 points lower in math than whites – a gap that hasn’t budged since 2000.

Some blame dismal performance on inadequate school funding. While California could prioritize more resources for education, the state’s per-pupil funding situation is made far worse when no one really knows how the money is spent. Since the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) was adopted four years ago, the state has carved out $20 billion in new funding to educate low-income students, English learners and foster youth and is now slated to spend $96 billion per year on K-12 education, or $450,000 for every 28 kids.

In fact, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, adjusted for inflation, California’s per-pupil funding level is now at its highest level in 30 years. The California Department of Education disperses funds to each of the state’s 1,024 school districts. But the there is no uniform transparency requirement to show parents and local stakeholders how funding is spent beyond the district headquarters.

When it comes to extra help for kids in poverty and English learners (disproportionately Latino and African American) nobody knows if the extra state grants going to districts are reaching the teachers and kids in the classrooms that need the most help. Without financial and program transparency within districts there’s no ability for parents and stakeholders in the local community to work collaboratively with educators to overcome the inertia of the bureaucratic status quo in persistently failing schools.

The reality of continuing dark clouds of low academic performance on the horizon for the millions of students of color and English learners in California public schools is reason enough to be concerned that state funding is getting swallowed up by bureaucracy before it reaches the classroom. Sacramento simply writes a check to each school district and wishes them good luck and buena suerte.

If California doesn’t embrace transparency and bring sunshine to what’s broken so it can get fixed, we will not be able to close the persistent achievement gaps plaguing millions of students in poverty and English learners in California public schools. Is the district helping teachers in schools with high proportions of disadvantaged students? Equitably allocating retirement liabilities across schools? Nobody knows.

By examining how money is being allocated and spent, everyone can better determine together which uses of resources are most effective for students and invest more in those. Otherwise, we shouldn’t be surprised if academic proficiency stagnates for another 20 years, especially for students of color against whom, recent data again tragically reveals, the system is obviously already stacked.

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