The Spirit Of The Williams Adequacy Lawsuit Settlement Has Been Lost
ISSUE 65 | AUGUST 31, 2004
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The long-awaited Williams adequacy lawsuit settlement is now nearly law, awaiting only the governor's signature. The results are a deep disappointment to this sad owl. The opportunity to settle who Is responsible for providing a floor level of resources beneath which no districts' schools are allowed to fall — has passed us by (for now).
The spirit of Williams was full of promise: all California students would be in schools with no less than adequate books, buildings, and teachers. The logic of Williams was solid. Because we have a constitutional commitment to a free and appropriate education, state government had an obligation to provide the resources for an adequate education when local districts failed to do so. But the reality of Williams is far from its promise
The venerable Peter Schrag, writing in his weekly column in the Sacramento Bee, described the Williams settlement in critical terms: "It moves things forward, but by inches, not by yards." Schrag has been covering the Williams lawsuit since it was filed, and has also written a book, "Final Test: The Battle for Adequacy in America's Schools," on these lawsuits nationally. Read Schrag's essay.
Instead of making a quantum leap, what we have is a token gesture, a pat-on-the-head to the plaintiffs who were brave enough to declare that no Californian should study in a classroom where teachers are unfit, textbooks are missing, and buildings are decrepit. The four bills that bring the terms of Williams into law call for audits, but don't provide the funds to do them. They call for new complaint procedures, but don't provide any agency with the muscle to settle those grievances. They call for struggling schools to get first shot at well-prepared teachers, but still don't provide incentive funds to reward teachers who choose to work in tougher schools.
AUDIT TEAMS WITH LOW BUDGETS
One week after the California Performance Audit called for the abolition of county offices of education, the Williams settlement called for county offices to play a new and important role of sheriff. Under Williams, county offices of education are to inspect the bottom one-third of their schools with the lowest API scores, yet the law gives them little money to do so — just $3,000 per school. Those spot audits are to occur in the first four weeks of school, and are supposed to review textbooks, teachers, facilities, and the accuracy of school accountability reports. In Santa Clara County, with 391 schools, this would mean 130 site visits in 20 workdays. Auditing three resources as different as teachers, textbooks and buildings would require auditors with three different specialties, an even more expensive proposition. (Never mind that the CBEDS Census Day would occur soon after the auditors visit, providing data that could be used to assess teacher credentials easily, thoroughly, and quickly.)
Sheila Jordan, superintendent of Alameda County Office of Education, is ready to "do the best we can to implement the settlement. It's a worthy cause." Supt. Jordan also affirmed that the county offices are the right agency for this auditing role. "It might as well be us," she said. "We're the only organization that has both in-house expertise, and already works with all the districts."
Auditors, if well funded, well trained and suitably empowered, could do much. Don Mullinax, who heads the audit unit at Los Angeles Unified, offers evidence of success. So does Tom Henry's much-in-demand team, the Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team (FCMAT). But there are not even sufficient funds for FCMAT, with three times the demand for voluntary audits alone from districts on the financial ropes. If the legislature lacks the will to fund FCMAT fully, it is unlikely to fund the auditing functions of the county offices of education.
The settlement throws handfuls of dollars at textbooks. But the sums aren't in proportion to the problem. And the issue of district-level mismanagement of textbooks remains unaddressed. When large districts don't allocate their inventory of textbooks equally across schools, the results are profoundly unfair. Who takes note? When district staff place orders for textbooks late, who takes note? When textbooks sit in warehouses, but don't get unpacked and distributed, who takes note? When publishers deliver textbooks late, who enforces what should be contractual penalties? When purchasing officers buy supplementary textbooks stupidly, paying retail rather than wholesale rates, who takes note? When business officers fail to bid contracts for trade paperbacks to competing suppliers, who takes note?
This crusty owl believes that the textbook problem is not simply a matter of too few dollars going to low-wealth districts. If you scratch the surface and look at district operations, you're likely to find misspent funds and textbooks that have been misplaced, mismanaged, and misappropriated.
UNEQUAL DISTRIBUTION OF TEACHERS
When it came to addressing the problem of teacher adequacy, Williams avoided the heart of the issue: who decides where teachers work? Ironically, this issue is the one most easily corrected by wise public policy. State law can't allocate better-prepared teachers among the 1,000 districts that are competing for their talents, but it could compel districts to take back the responsibility for deciding where better prepared teachers work within their boundaries. This would require that lawmakers stare down the teachers unions and exclude from collective bargaining the issue of teacher assignments.
Education insiders all know that seniority rules enable teachers to bid on jobs within a district, as long as they hold the right credential and subject area authorization. But this only exists because districts bargained away what used to be management prerogative. This is little known outside the castle of K-12. If the citizens of California understood that school districts could take back this authority, they would be clamoring for what is obviously in kids' interests. In the ugly conflict between the job interests of teachers and the education interests of students, it is teachers who have won. The Williams settlement could have reversed this. That it did not is evidence of the power of the teachers union over both the governor and legislature. This owl is dismayed by the lack of courage of both to act in the public interest.
There is more to Williams, of course. Audits of the accuracy of schools' annual accountability reports. Revised complaint procedures. Signs in classrooms about the right to complain. These are worth affirming. But this owl sees too much huffing and puffing, an all-show-no-go sort of posturing. The ACLU looks tough. The governor looks buff. The legislature looks rough. But the historic opportunity to retool the structure of governance and refit the system of funding schools has been missed.
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