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As California Goes with the Every Student Succeeds Act, So Goes the Nation?

Article by Ruben Navarrette June 30, 2016 //   5 minute read

San Diego--The West is where the sun sets. But it’s also where national political trends rise. The backlash against illegal immigration. Efforts to end affirmative action. The crusade to lower property taxes. All these movements started in the Golden State.

Those who want to improve our public schools had better hope that California’s latest experiment proves to be the exception to that rule. It’s a mess. And you want no part of it.

Those who want to improve our public schools had better hope that California’s latest experiment proves to be the exception to that rule. It’s a mess. And you want no part of it.

As to how we got here, California is in a pickle. Like every other state, it is required under the new federal education law — the Every Student Succeeds Act — to tell parents how their children’s schools are doing and give the school an overall rating or grade.

That sounds simple enough. But California happens to be the one state in America with the strongest teachers unions.

In this dark blue state — where Democrats control the governor’s office, every other statewide elective office, and both chambers of the Legislature — much of this political domination by one party is made possible by the generosity of the California Teachers Association. All the CTA asks in return from those lawmakers is complete allegiance and unflinching obedience.

In California, what the CTA wants, the CTA gets. And when it comes to following the federal mandate on school evaluation under ESSA, what the CTA wants is for lawmakers and educational bureaucrats to come up with crafty ways to appear to comply with the requirement while avoiding the kind of clear and concise accountability that might cause parents to panic.   

And how do you pull that off? Answer: By keeping the school’s evaluation as vague as possible.

You see, for the most part, the ESSA law allows states to create their own systems for evaluating schools. Of course, it does have a couple of requirements: that states give academics “much” more weight than other factors and also include at least one non-academic factor.

That sort of language creates just enough wiggle room for those who want to skirt accountability to get creative.  And that’s where we are in California where the debate is now over how the state should present its evaluation of schools and the required rating.

In one camp, those within the educational establishment want to present all the criteria on a “dashboard” without producing a single grade or number. In the opposing camp, reform advocates and civil rights groups argue that school evaluations must be boiled down to a single grade or number in order to make them more user-friendly for parents.

That’s the rub. Who said everyone agrees that this data should be accessible to parents? They don’t.  And that’s what makes this issue so messy in California, where too many people in power want to create a political solution to an education dilemma.  

Speaking of politics, ESSA was itself a result of a political revolt by both liberals and conservatives against a much stronger accountability law, No Child Left Behind. ESSA is NCLB-lite, a watered down version of the original law intended to pacify both those on the left who are controlled by teachers unions and those on the right who believe in local control.

It’s telling — and depressing — that even that weaker version of a school accountability law is considered too onerous for the status quo forces to comply with.

This issue isn't nearly as complicated as folks out West are making it out to be.  The ESSA law requires that states inform parents how well their children’s schools are doing. Implicit in that requirement is that states must present that information in a method that is simple enough for parents to understand. Otherwise, why go to the trouble?

So California must comply with that requirement. It has a responsibility to enlighten parents about the educational process, not leave them in the dark.

Anything less is a travesty -- one that the federal government cannot let stand.

 Ruben Navarrette is a fellow at the George W. Bush Institute.  He is also a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group, a columnist for the Daily Beast, and author of “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano” (Bantam).