California education issues to watch in 2019 — and predictions of what will happen

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Welcome, readers, to the new year. It’s time for our favorite armchair exercise: predictions for the year in education.

The Greeks asked Tiresias, the blind prophet of Apollo in Thebes, for their advice. Last year, I consulted Dewey, my rescue dog with cataracts; his visions proved to be as cloudy as his eyesight. No treats for him. I’m back to going solo. (More on how we fared at the end of the column.)

There’s a wild card this year: Gavin Newsom. Gov. Jerry Brown, while sometimes mystical, proved to be true to his word. Newsom has made some vague promises, like a “cradle to career” education system, and President Donald Trump is messing with California’s reliance on stock profits for revenue, so 2019 could prove a forecaster’s nightmare.

The scale ranges from 1 to 5 “Fensters,” with 1 meaning no chance and 5 meaning highly likely. Tally along with me and we’ll settle up this time next year.

Charter schools

Charter schools are in for a tough year. The great protector, Jerry Brown, is gone. Wealthy backers of charter schools spent big and lost big when their candidates, Antonio Villaraigosa for governor and Marshall Tuck for state superintendent, went down in the 2018 election. Now the state’s 1,200-plus charter schools may pay the price. The California Teachers Association and the California School Boards Association have been waiting for a chance to shackle charters. Here’s how they might do it legislatively:

Transparency and accountability: Many school districts already require charter schools to comply with the state’s open meetings and public records laws. In 2019, the Legislature will require compliance by all charter schools. Brown twice vetoed bills imposing the state’s conflict of interest law on charter schools run by nonprofit boards, saying the language needed exceptions. Gov. Newsom won’t raise the same objections.

Appeals process: Speaking of conflicts of interest, some school districts will never approve a charter, no matter how worthy. That’s why the charter law provides two levels of appeal, first by elected boards of county offices of education and then the State Board of Education. But in the name of local control, the Legislature will limit grounds for an appeal and may eliminate appeals to the state board.

Financial impact: This is where charters could get whacked. Current law does not allow authorizers to consider a charter school’s financial impact on a school district; other criteria and parent choice determine approval. That could change. Depending on how it’s written, a bill could be an open invitation for school boards to deny applications. With strike-bound LA teachers calling for a charter moratorium, lawmakers could pass what newly elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond euphemistically calls a “pause” while they mull over a financial impact bill.

Teacher strikes

This will be the year that “Red for Ed” — the symbol of teacher discontent that united striking teachers in conservative states like West Virginia and Arizona ­— hits blue California. Teacher activism could bring to a boil the stew of tensions in school districts facing cuts in programming amid rising pension and special education expenses, declines in student enrollment and a projected leveling of state revenue. Unions are eyeing the reserves that districts say they will need for tougher times.

United Teachers Los Angeles has set Jan. 10 for the first strike in 30 years in Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest district, with no talk of a deal as the year turned. Teachers in financially troubled Oakland Unified and elsewhere are watching for cues.

School construction

Brown hated debt and opposed the $9 billion school construction bond that voters passed in 2016. That money has been divvied up, so this year, the Legislature will likely vote to place at least one construction bond for the 2020 ballot and maybe another for 2022. The battle will be over making the allocation formula of state matching funding more equitable. A Getting Down to Facts study concluded the current system favors property-wealthy districts, to the disadvantage of many rural districts and districts with low-income families. But the current winners won’t give up easily.

11th grade testing

Thwarted by Gov. Brown’s veto last fall, Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, promises to reintroduce a bill to allow school districts to substitute the SAT or ACT college admissions tests for the Smarter Balanced assessments, which the state requires all high school juniors to take. In his veto message, Brown urged giving the University of California more time to decide whether to use Smarter Balanced scores as an admissions criterion. UC and CSU will ask for another year to consider the option, but O’Donnell will say he’s not content to wait and he has the support of dozens of school districts. Besides Brown, the biggest opponent has been State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson; his successor, Thurmond, supports the idea.

Public pensions

Within the next several weeks, the California Supreme Court will rule on a case challenging a 70-year-old court decision that gave public union employees the vested right to whatever pension benefits were in effect their first day on the job. Gov. Brown hoped the court would overturn the precedent before he left office, so public employers and the Legislature could scale back future benefits, potentially saving money for the state, school districts and local governments. The case before it, Cal Fire v. CalPERS, is narrow, but the court will likely use it to open the door to more definitive rulings. Unions will not like the direction that the court will take.

School funding

This year, the Legislature will pass and Gov. Newsom will sign Assembly Bill 39, setting a goal of raising per-student funding to the level of the top 10 states — at least $35 billion more — in coming years. That will be the easy part. Accomplishing it will require either raising new taxes (see next item) or devoting a bigger share of the General Fund to Proposition 98, the formula that sets the funding level for K-12 schools and community colleges. Newsom, like his predecessors, won’t budge on the minimum amount, even though the General Fund could have as much as $15 billion extra to spend in 2019-20.

Higher taxes

In October, civil rights and community groups got confirmation they had gathered enough signatures to put an initiative on the 2020 ballot that will be the first major challenge to Proposition 13’s tight restrictions on property taxes. Through higher taxes on business and commercial properties, a “split roll” initiative would raise between an estimated $6 billion and $10 billion annually. Most of that revenue would go to local governments with 40 percent going to K-12 schools and community colleges. But the initiative will face a tough fight from business groups and some education advocates who want legislators to negotiate changes with the sponsors to raise more money for schools — and perhaps preschools and early education. Others want a different measure, with broader tax reform.

Universal preschool

With the Legislative Analyst’s Office predicting a big surplus in the state’s General Fund in 2019-20, Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, a father of four young children, can make good on his promise to spend a lot more money on early childhood education. But legislators who see an opening for funding universal preschool next year will be disappointed. He’ll likely move deliberately, using one-time money instead of billions in ongoing funding, to narrow differences in reimbursement rates among providers, set uniform requirements and add incentives for teachers to get college degrees.

Data movement

Gov. Jerry Brown transformed how California schools are financed and governed though the Local Control Funding Formula. But his obstinate opposition to creating a functioning statewide data system has prevented school districts, researchers and policy makers from understanding how well the system is working.

Brown believed that more statewide, uniform data collection could undermine local control and arouse meddling bureaucrats and overreaching legislators. Newsom has no such aversion. Building a data system that expands CALPADS (the existing K-12 data system) and links it with higher education data, the workforce and a yet-to-be-built early childhood database is a key recommendation of the three dozen Getting Down to Facts studies in 2018 and a new report, The Master Plan for Higher Education in California and State Workforce Needs, by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research.

Free community college tuition

For decades California led the nation in making community college affordable. The per-credit cost was the nation’s lowest and all low-income students had their fees waived. But other states have created “college promise programs,” offering free tuition, and last year the Legislature created the California College Promise, with $46 million to waive the first year of tuition for students not already eligible. Newsom, fulfilling a campaign promise, will double that with free tuition for a second year ­for students who commit to take a full load of courses for two years.

Exit Betsy DeVos

It’s hard to imagine U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos enjoying her job. Civil rights groups and teachers unions regularly pillory her for her lack of knowledge and experience in public schools. Congress has rejected her proposals to expand school vouchers. In a tell-all book about Trump, former senior adviser Omarosa Manigault Newman claimed Trump nicknamed her “Ditzy DeVos.”

It’s only going to get worse when the Democrats take over the House this month and summon her to the Hill to badger her over the latest Obama-era guidance that her department rescinded. Even some of those sympathetic to her agree it’s time for “a dignified return to private life,” as Fordham Foundation President Michael Petrilli put it in a post-midterm election column. By late summer, she’ll take his advice.