Dan Walters: California’s long-running school achievement debate reaches climactic point

01/14/2014 5:20 PM

01/15/2014 7:41 AM

Years – even decades – of intense academic and political debate over closing the stubbornly wide “achievement gap” that separates Latino and black students from their white and Asian classmates are reaching a climactic point.

This week, the State Board of Education is poised to approve hotly contested regulations to guide the expenditure of billions of extra dollars aimed at improving the educations of poor and “English learner” students.

Nearly 60 percent of the state’s 6 million K-12 students fall into that category, and while almost every school district will receive some new money, those with large concentrations of the targeted kids – particularly big urban districts – will receive much more.

There has been no serious controversy over whether the extra money should be spent, even though there’s scant research to support the thesis that spending more will produce more achievement.

The battle has been over how it should be allocated – whether it should be tightly concentrated on the students it’s supposed to help, or school districts should have “flexibility,” their term of art, to spend it wisely.

Gov. Jerry Brown, who pushed the “local control funding formula” through the Legislature, opts for flexibility, as do members of the state’s education establishment, but civil rights and school reform groups want tighter rules.

The latter denounced a first draft of regulations issued late last year as being too loose, and the Board of Education recast them somewhat this month, but not enough to satisfy some vociferous critics.

EdVoice, one of the leading reform groups, sent a letter to the board and its president, Michael Kirst, last week, citing “blatant loopholes” that would allow districts to shift the extra money into broader spending categories.

Kirst, an education professor, is the father of the plan and persuaded Brown to get behind it.

Critics fear that without tight controls, school boards politically beholden to their unions would spend the extra money on salary increases and other broad purposes, rather than on direct academic help for struggling students.

“As the governor said so eloquently last year, equal treatment of unequals is not justice,” the EdVoice letter said.

Chances are high, however, that the board will proceed with the revised set of regulations that has gained the tacit approval of the education establishment, giving local school boards, administrators and teachers the flexibility they seek.

If, however, that approach does not result in a dramatic, or at least measurable, closing of the achievement gap, not only would Brown’s legacy be tarnished, but it would discredit Kirst’s theory that spending more will make a positive difference in outcomes.

It’s a multibillion-dollar gamble for kids who need help, for Brown – and for the state’s future.

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