California’s student population is the most diverse in the country, and this can be an incredible asset for our state’s future. To meet that potential, however, we must ensure that public schools are equipped to address the challenges that come with students' diverse needs. For too long, California’s public schools have fallen short. Large groups of students have been underserved for decades: Latinos, African Americans, as well as English Learners, African-American males, students with special needs, LGBTQ students, children in foster care, and others.
While the strategies discussed throughout this plan will help improve educational opportunities for all students, in order to make our public schools more equitable, we need sufficient and differentiated resources, policies, and practices for those with the greatest needs.
In addition to more support, the state must also hold schools accountable for truly serving all students. We cannot allow groups of students to be consistently underserved by our public schools.
A Comprehensive Equity Audit of our Public Schools
If schools and school districts are going differentiate their resources and supports to ensure we have equity in our public schools, they need to have a good understanding of how resources and supports are currently allocated. A school equity audit would help identify changes that would make resource allocation more equitable.
In an equity audit, districts would gather data that impacts the critical resources and supports that are available to students: financial resource allocations; educator experience levels and rates of turnover; access to a college preparatory curriculum; access to art, music, civics, and other enrichment experiences; and, learning time, among other key school-based opportunities. This data should then be analyzed across and race and class, so that we have a clear picture at the school, district, and state level of the inequities that exist in our system, as a critical starting point for addressing them. Districts and schools, with the help of the state, can then begin implementing the necessary changes (such as those discussed in this plan and elsewhere), to ensure that our system is actually meeting the needs of all students.
Equitable School Funding
Some students- such as those learning English, living in poverty, and/or in the foster care system- typically require additional dollars to support, due to the significant challenges they face. Allocating the necessary resources for schools to address these challenges and help students successfully overcome them is critical, and it is why the Local Control Funding Formula, launched by Governor Brown, is one of the most important policies passed in education in California in the last decade. This formula provides additional funding to schools based upon the number and proportion of high-needs students they serve. It also gives school districts much more flexibility in their funding decisions. It is important that we preserve and, when appropriate, expand upon the additional funding and financial flexibility that LCFF created, and resist forces that would once again smother our schools with categorical funding requirements, as was the case prior to LCFF.
The state superintendent and CDE can play an important role in the successful implementation of LCFF. We must:
- Ensure that schools are using their LCFF dollars appropriately, and that the funds are actually being used to support students that generate supplemental and concentration grant dollars. School districts should report their budgets and spending in a user-friendly format that makes clear where the additional LCFF funding they received went, and how that spending impacted students.
- Help share LCFF best practices across counties and districts efficiently. As school districts implement LCFF, the state superintendent and the Department of Education can play a critical role in monitoring the different ways school districts use the additional funding, and in promoting a statewide dialogue that allows districts to learn from each other as quickly as possible.
- Make quality, disaggregated data related to LCFF available to all schools. For example, schools and communities should be able to see clearly the performance of targeted groups of students that are participating in programs that are primarily supported with the additional dollars LCFF generates for high-needs students. Having such data will enable identification of programs that work well, programs that do not.
Additional Support for Students in Special Education
Our students with special needs are too often underserved by our public education system. There are many things that we can do to improve the educational opportunities available to students who qualify for special services—and many of these efforts actually improve the education system for all children.
- California should take the lead on pushing the federal government to fund special education mandates. For too long the federal government has dramatically underfunded special education, and all options should be explored when it comes to getting them to pay their fair share (including the possibility of working with other states to file a lawsuit against the federal government to compel their payment).
- As we push for more overall funding for our public schools, we need to make sure we are adequately funding special education, especially for students with moderate/severe needs. We can also more equitably fund special education services, so that dollars schools receive are reflective of the actual special education costs they incur. And the California Department of Education can play a role in reducing special education costs by supporting collaborations among schools and districts that generate savings.
- The state can also help address the teacher shortage, which is especially acute in Special Education. We can provide financial incentives for teachers to teach special education, streamline the credentialing process for Paraeducators/instructional assistants already working with our students with special needs, and support better collaboration between special and general education teachers, to relieve the burdens on both.
- We should encourage greater investment in professional development, not just for special educators, but also for collaboration between special education service providers, general educators, and administrators, and parents, so that there is greater alignment across all the adults working on behalf of students with special needs.
- We must shift away from a compliance-based model of special education delivery, to a results-driven one. Because of the many federal and state laws governing special education services, we can too often believe that our job is done when we have simply navigated all the rules. For our students, that is far from enough. The California Department of Education needs to be a partner to schools, relieving them of unnecessary rules where possible, advocating for better statewide policies, and helping to identify and share best practices for serving kids with special needs.
Much work has been done in California to identify improvements to our special education program, including a recent report by California’s Task Force on Special Education. We need to take more urgent and effective action to put many of these recommendations in place.
Serving California’s Large English Learner Population
In California, more than one-in-five students is classified as an English Learner— over 1.3 million students. Many of those students are new arrivals to this country, and our public schools must address the language, academic, cultural, and social-emotional needs of this growing student group. With the proper support, flexibility, and accountability from the state, our schools can do just that, and make sure that our public schools are the great equalizers of opportunities that so many came to this country in search of. There are several ways the state can help improve educational opportunities for English Learners, including:
- With the 2016 passage of Proposition 58, more schools and families will now have the choice to educate English Learners in a bilingual setting, which will allow for a transition to English proficiency that better aligns with the research on language acquisition, while ensuring language proficiency is no longer a barrier to accessing other educational content. Our state can support school districts that are rolling out these bilingual programs through streamlined credentialing for bilingual educators, and by sharing best practices from those bilingual programs that existed before the passage of Proposition 58.
- Our teacher preparation programs in the state’s colleges and universities should continue to place a greater emphasis on English Learners, and develop skills for incorporating English language development strategies into general education content. We also need a focused effort on increasing the number of bilingual teachers.
- As with other areas, the CDE can help identify and spread promising practices in this area, of which there are many. Innovative programs around the state, for example, are demonstrating the power of integrating English Language Learner instructional practices into the rest of the curriculum. English Learners are more likely to stay engaged when they are learning English through content, and the instructional practices teachers can employ to make the content accessible to students still learning English are often strong instructional practices that benefit all students.
- Finally, we can work with school districts to provide operational flexibility and funding that allows them to offer extended time for English Learners. While innovative practices are blending core content and English development, the fact will remain that many English Learners will simply require additional time to both develop the language, as well as have full access to the rest of the curriculum. Our state should work with school districts to get them the extra time they need.
California has developed an English Learner Roadmap, which provides a strong outline for the significant work there is to do to ensure our English Learners are set up for success in our public schools. It’s time we take the steps necessary to turn this into policies and practices that make our school system more equitable for the more than one million English Learners it serves.
Supporting Our Most Vulnerable Students
Similar to our English Learners, and students with special needs, we have to do a lot more to support other subgroups of students that have been persistently left behind in our public schools, such as African American students (particularly African American males), students that are homeless or in foster care, youth leaving incarceration, students living poverty, students in rural communities, and others. The promise of our public schools is that they must serve all students-- that means providing differentiated supports for groups of students that addresses the particular needs of those students.
Our most vulnerable student populations face unique challenges, and often they feel statewide challenges more acutely than most students. As the whole state faces a teacher shortage, for instance, the crisis disproportionately impacts rural communities, students-of-color, and low-income students. Addressing these inequities must be a top priority for California. LCFF has been a good start but there is a lot more to do. We need focused, differentiated strategies to serve our most vulnerable and lowest performing student groups including differentiated funding, targeted professional development for educators, expanded social and emotional support services and, when relevant, expanded learning time. Additionally, the State Superintendent and the CDE need to utilize data to best identify strong instructional practices that improve outcomes for these often-overlooked student groups, and target resources to support and expand those practices.
Community Schools that Address the Whole Child
To serve all kids well, our public schools must respond to the fact that many of our students- particularly our students living in poverty- struggle with a lack of adequate access to healthcare and/or quality nutrition, and may face emotional distress and other burdens. While schools can’t bear the responsibility of solving all society’s problems, they can better support our students by connecting them to various health and human services, when possible.
Our public schools can be community hubs, serving as a central point for a variety of social services that improve outcomes for students. Our state and local communities often provide many layers of services, especially for those with greater need. This is crucial, as we must tend to the needs of the whole child, not merely academics. But it is also a critical component of academic success: a student with a vision problem and no glasses will suffer academically when she can’t see the whiteboard; a student with untreated asthma will likely miss many days of school, and fall behind in his learning. And while there are many social programs that would help alleviate these and many other challenges- everything from free vision testing and glasses, to full-service health clinics- they can be most effective if they are woven into the fabric of the schools, where students and families spend so much of their time.
The state can play an important role in breaking down some of the barriers that exist between our public education system, and other public health and human services. The state can also help districts connect to these types of services more effectively by taking a number of actions, including: (1) providing more flexibility to schools to integrate outside service providers, (2) helping counties create online communities for service providers and districts to create partnerships, (3) sharing best practices and acting as a convener, bringing together the many private and public organizations to determine where there is alignment and opportunity for partnership.
Finally, the state needs to support efforts to extend learning time for students who need it most, by expanding after school programs, summer programs, and other opportunities for learning beyond the classroom. We must advocate for continued and expanded funding of these critical programs, including at the federal level, where recent budget proposals recommend cutting them entirely.
Parent Engagement in Schools
We must actively engage parents, supporting their efforts to be involved in our schools, and in the education of their children. Schools work better, and students learn more, when parents are involved. Actively engaged parents are more aware of what’s happening in the classroom, are better able to support students’ learning at home, and are more prepared to advocate for their children. Schools should provide parents with the information and opportunities they need to be strong advocates for their children and public education.
There are a number of schools and districts throughout the state that have successful programs in place for engaging parents. The state should identify these models and work with districts and counties to replicate them.
Beyond sharing best practices, there are a number of other actions the state superintendent can take in order to help schools better engage parents, including: 1) advocate for a school accountability system that is user-friendly for parents, 2) push for district-level academic and financial reports that are clear and readable, 3) help county offices of education build their capacity around parent engagement so that they can assist districts as they try to improve parent engagement, and 4) work closely with the PTA and other parent organizations to make sure parent voice is heard when it comes to statewide policy making on education.
Non-Profit Charter Schools and Other Quality School Options
No child should be forced to attend a low-performing school because of where he or she lives. California has adopted policies to give parents more power to decide which public schools their children will attend, and more options when their neighborhood schools are not providing a quality education. It is important to preserve and strategically expand high-quality public school options for parents, particularly in communities where the need is greatest. All students benefit when the system offers diverse public school options to meet the needs of diverse students. Policies around public school options can take many forms: charter schools that have flexibility to innovate new practices; magnet programs that focus on a particular academic discipline; and, policies that allow students in underperforming public schools to attend a different public school, even potentially beyond the boundaries of a district. This kind of variety makes sense in a 21st century school system, especially one serving a population as large as ours. It also provides opportunities for families to find the best fit for their kids, and for schools to learn from one another.
Charter schools are among the fastest-growing public school options, and our state has a critical role to play in ensuring that charter schools add value to the entire public education system, as well as to the students it serves.
Our state should continue to support high-quality, non-profit charter schools, especially in areas where there have been few or no high quality public school alternatives. Too many of our high needs communities- typically in urban and rural areas- have been stuck in low performing public schools and this cuts directly against our values. The middle class and upper class are rarely left with no quality school options. They have been able to move to a neighborhood with better schools, navigate magnet systems, or send their kids to private schools. It is our neediest that have been hurt the most by underperforming schools, and we should support quality public charter schools that can give our highest-need families an additional public school opportunity.
There are some unintended consequences from charter schools and they can have some negative impacts on district schools in the areas where they are opened (particularly in the initial years after a charter is opened). Policy can be used to mitigate those impacts. A few policy changes related to charters that could help the overall public school system include: (1) making for-profit charter schools illegal; (2) requiring charter schools to be transparent by following the Brown Act and complying with public records requests; (3) ensuring there are no harmful conflicts-of-interest at charter schools; and (4) ensuring that public schools welcome all students. Charter schools that are consistently failing, turning away students, mishandling public dollars, or treating employees illegally, should be shut down.
We also need to invest in bringing charter schools and traditional public schools together. Charter schools were created in part to act as innovation labs for traditional school districts. Not enough of this is happening. We need to transform the “charter versus district” narrative, by helping districts and county offices adapt to the introduction of charter schools, and helping charter schools be supportive partners to districts. We need to reshape the conversation to focus on how we most effectively serve all students well and how charter schools and district schools can coexist and collaborate in a way that is effective for students.
Finally, our state should continue to forbid private school vouchers. Private schools can teach- or not teach- whatever and whomever they please, and should be funded with private dollars and not public dollars.
Protecting the Rights of all Students
At the core of the promise of a public education is that it is for everyone. No one should be denied full access to great public schools because of their identity or status. It is growing increasingly important for California and the state superintendent to champion and safeguard the rights of all kids to receive a high quality public education in a safe and nurturing environment. No one should be fearful on our school campuses, and no one should slip through the cracks.
There are several steps we can take to make sure our schools are protecting the rights of all students, including:
- Expand the California Department of Education Office of Equal Opportunity, to supplant cutbacks in the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Additionally, we should strengthen our partnership with the California Bureau of Children’s Justice, under the state Attorney General. Between these two efforts, we can help ensure that students and their families are free from intimidation and discrimination— regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, race, ethnicity, or anything else.
- Share best practices with schools and districts around creating a welcoming and affirming environment for all students, reducing bullying and harassment, and responding to it swiftly and productively when it occurs.
- Invest in educator training and increase access to counselors, so our schools are equipped to support students, whether they are struggling with their identity, dealing with bullying or adverse family experiences, having difficulty accessing health care, navigating their immigration status, or anything else.
- Intervene if there are schools that are not safeguarding all students’ rights, to ensure our schools are safe havens for all kids and their families.