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Report on state education shows little progress

Five years after a study by Stanford researchers called for reform and increased investment in California’s public education system, progress has been at best underwhelming and inconsistent, according to a new report from the independent Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) research center.

“Our initial optimism was clearly unwarranted,” wrote Susanna Loeb, professor of education and director of PACE, in the new report’s introduction. Loeb added that the “past five years have seen only small improvements on the problems identified” in the original report.

The initial study, titled “Getting Down to Facts,” sought to promote policies encouraging better governance and administration within the educational sector, as well as the simplification of education finance and development of a comprehensive state data system. The study was met with approval by state legislative leaders and then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who proclaimed 2008 to be the “Year of Education” in California.

“In 2007, it appeared the timeframe for comprehensive and structural reform was relatively short,” said David Plank, professor of education and PACE executive director. “The idea was that this was something that could be done on a relatively short timeline.”

According to Plank, the onset of economic recession — and Schwarzenegger’s subsequent pivot to address California’s deteriorating finances — contributed to the failure of state legislators to follow through on the study’s recommendations. The PACE report noted that state general funding was 15 percent lower by the end of 2009 than at its peak in 2007-2008.

“A lot of needed policy reforms were put on hold because of the budget crisis,” Plank said. “Once the governor backed away from his own committee [on education reform], the timeline was extended quite a long way.”

This lack of funding could be further exacerbated this November, as Californians vote on a budget proposal by Gov. Jerry Brown that would either raise income and sales taxes or cut a further $5.3 billion from state welfare and public school spending. Plank commented in a Jan. 18 Daily article that the prospect of such cuts would only contribute to an already “awful” situation in state public schools.

The PACE report identified areas in which the “Getting Down to Facts” recommendations have either been implemented or are currently under discussion, such as data-driven analyses of student performance and greater devolution of resources and accountability to local levels.

Plank singled out the development of a comprehensive student data system as an area of considerable progress. He added, though, that this may be compromised by a veto from Brown on funding for a similar effort to collate teacher information.

“California has very high expectations for what we expect schools, students [and] teachers to do, and we hold them accountable for that performance,” Plank said. “The only way that we can do that fairly and accurately is if we have comprehensive data.”

While acknowledging that the political and economic atmosphere has changed significantly since 2007, Plank argued that the majority of PACE’s recommendations are still relevant and necessary.

“The general argument of “Getting Down to Facts” — that California needs to spend more money to ensure that all children can reach the standards the state has set, but that spending money in the way we spend it now will not be sufficient — is still exactly true,” Plank asserted.

PACE researchers expressed cautious optimism, however, that the economic recovery and recent efforts by Brown to address education finance may signal a belated return to the “Getting Down to Facts” proposals.

“There has been progress,” Plank said. “There are many reasons in 2012 to be optimistic that the moment for significant reform may be coming back.”

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