The 2021-22 school year was supposed to have been a rebound to normalcy, with Covid in the rear-view mirror. Instead, midway through, the year has been "shock and overload," with teachers and administrators "working harder and losing ground," as Mike Kirst, former president of the State Board of Education, put it. Not for everyone in every school, but the overall picture ahead is equally dreary. Students are struggling, teachers are tired, and many parents are disgruntled.
There will be record school funding again next year, which will make staff shortages all the more frustrating. But as quotable film star Mae West would say: "I've been rich and I've been poor, and rich is better."
Testing: This spring, California's third- through eighth- and 11th-graders will resume taking a shortened version of Smarter Balanced standardized tests in language arts and math after missing two years because of the pandemic. Based on results from interim assessments that most districts have administered the past two years, the Smarter Balanced scores will be abysmal, with a widening of the already big gaps in scores between white students and their Black and Latino peers.
In pre-pandemic 2018-19, 51 percent of California students met or exceeded standards in English language arts and 40 percent met or exceeded standards in math on the Smarter Balanced tests.
Student wellness: Each year, most districts administer the state's California Healthy Kids Survey, a confidential and anonymous survey of students in odd-numbered grades. It provides a window into school climate and student wellness. Many teachers this year are reporting that students' stress and mental health issues that were somewhat hidden during distance learning were exposed with the return to school.
Chronic absenteeism: Based on early data, McKinsey & Co. projects that the nationwide rate of chronically absent students will be 28 percent 2021-22, an astounding number that would be 2.7 times what it was two years ago. California, which has a similar definition -- missing 10 percent or more of school days -- doesn't release timely absenteeism data, but some districts do. As of Dec. 17, 1 out of 7 students in Oakland Unified were absent more than 20 percent of the time and 1 out of 5 were absent between 10 percent and 20 percent of the time.
Hedy Chang, executive director of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Attendance Works, has created a new category: extreme chronic absences, describing students missing half of the school year. "There is a huge potential dropout crisis developing," she said.
Adding Covid to the list of required childhood vaccinations will be the most contentious issue legislators will take up in 2022.
In October, Newsom issued an executive order mandating Covid vaccinations for students to attend school in person, pending final vaccine approval by the FDA. His executive order included a personal belief exemption. Eliminating it could be done through a statute; no other mandated childhood vaccination, like polio and measles, allows an exemption. The political heat to include a personal exemption will be intense from anti-vaccine parents, and the challenge of providing separate schooling for tens of thousands of unvaccinated kids next year will be daunting.
Education could figure prominently among voter initiatives in November if proponents gather the 997,139 signatures to qualify a school choice measure for the ballot. There could be two initiatives, in addition to a proposed constitutional amendment creating the right to a high-quality public education. The California Teachers Association will be spending millions of dollars to defeat them.
California voters haven't been receptive to school choice in the past. In 1994 and again in 2000, initiatives to approve school vouchers, in which the state would have paid full or partial tuition to a private or religious school that a family chose, got only 30 percent of the vote. Given that history, it's a wonder that school choice allies couldn't unite around one proposal. Instead, two groups are collecting signatures for a school choice alternative, education savings accounts. While different in details, they're similar enough that the Attorney General's Office gave them identical wording for their initiative titles.
Education savings accounts differ from vouchers in that funding would go directly to parents to spend for a private, religious, charter or home school arrangement instead of as a tuition voucher to a school. Recipients could save what they don't spend for post-high school education.
Masking and vaccination mandates have stirred anger against public schools among conservatives but also among Democrats frustrated over delayed school re-openings, indicating there may be wider support this time.
If backers collect signatures and voters agree with the initiative, California would join Florida, Illinois and Virginia, whose state constitutions entitle public school students to a "high-quality" education.
Behind the effort is David Welch, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who financed the Vergara v. California lawsuit, which challenged teacher tenure, dismissal and other workplace protection laws as harming students. He won in Superior Court but lost in the California Court of Appeal. One reason was that the state Constitution doesn't guarantee a minimum level of quality.
Under the proposed initiative, parents and students could file a lawsuit to challenge policies, regulations and laws that they believe interfere with a high-quality education. The initiative would prohibit judges from mandating spending or taxes as remedies -- a clause that some children's advocates argue will undermine bringing future lawsuits to achieve adequate funding levels for schools.
Recognizing the challenges that Covid and distance learning created, the Legislature suspended tying funding to student attendance for the past two years. Districts could continue to claim 2019-20 pre-pandemic attendance even if those numbers dropped when schools closed for in-person instruction.
But the status quo created distortions, since half of districts were already losing students and have been overpaid, and districts that have absorbed in-state migration haven't fully been made whole. The Legislature in June ordered a return to collecting attendance rates starting this school year, and using it to budget for 2022-23.
But this year has not been a return to normal; chronic absences are soaring, and now the omicron variant is sidelining students. School lobbies are pressing for another year of "hold harmless" or switching to annual school enrollment, not daily attendance, for funding. Legislators will consider an accommodation for another year. One option: Fund districts on a rolling three-year average of average daily attendance starting in 2022-23, as Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, proposes in a bill he announced this week.
The State Board of Education has gone back and forth on when to encourage California students to take Algebra I. In 2008, the board mandated that all eighth graders take Algebra 1. The board backed off several years later with studies that showed large numbers of low-income students who took Algebra 1 in eighth grade were repeating it in ninth grade and still doing poorly.
The commission that advises the state board on academic standards recommended last spring that all students should take the same math courses in middle school and algebra in ninth grade. Without pressure to take Algebra earlier, students would do better and take more advanced math courses in high school, the draft said. The commission highlighted an internal study by San Francisco Unified that purported to make that case.
Hundreds of college math, science and engineering professors slammed the position in letters to the board and governor (here and here), arguing that uniformity is not equity. It punishes students ready for algebra in middle school and discourages students interested in majoring in science, technology, engineering and math by making them double up math courses to take calculus by their senior year. A parent group's critique of San Francisco's study found the district mischaracterized and cherry-picked key data.
The state board has pushed back a final decision to this summer. The next draft of the new nonbinding math curriculum framework is expected to be released this month.
There will be billions more in new funding in what will be another banner year for revenue in 2022-23. Newsom will lay out his priorities in his proposed budget next week. A projected cost-of-living increase of at least 5 percent will eat away at a chunk of it, but there'll be plenty to argue over. Here are some possibilities:
Base funding: Asked for their top priority, many superintendents, especially those facing sharp enrollment declines, would probably say, "No new programs, just base funding beyond COLA and let us decide." Newsom may be sympathetic come the May budget revision.
K-12 school construction: With Covid exposing the health risks of aging school buildings and $3 billion in local school projects approved and waiting for state matching money, school renovation proponents will be stalking the halls of the Capitol this spring. Money could come through a $10-plus-billion state bond on the November ballot; the Assembly and Senate passed differing bond proposals last year. Or it could be funded through a state budget surplus; the Assembly already said that's its preference.
Special education: Last month, the nonprofit research organization WestEd quietly released a long-awaited report on financing special education.
It won't remain quiet for long. Commissioned by the state board and California Department of Education, the report recommends breaking up the current system and steering funding for students with disabilities to school districts instead of through intermediary agencies, known as Special Education Local Plan Agencies, or SELPAs. County offices of education would assume some of the SELPAs' administrative responsibilities; the state would fully fund a risk pool to cover the expenses of high-cost disabilities -- a big worry for districts.
Five years ago, SELPAs and anxious special education parents quashed a similar proposal. The WestEd report makes a strong case, and Newsom has signaled he's open to change. He could use billions of surplus funding to seed a new system. Or he could decide to hold off adding one more massive new change next year for districts cross-eyed with pandemic fatigue.
Schools nationwide have become the new battlegrounds for culture wars, including rural counties throughout the state and Republican strongholds in Southern California. Riled up by transgender rights, mandated ethnic studies and a vaccine mandate, some conservative parents and activists are threatening to exit public schools while others are vowing to change it from within by running for school boards. Organizations like Education Impact, a coalition of faith-based groups and conservative nonprofits, have held seminars on how to home school, either individually or collectively, and how to run for school boards.
The impact -- with 1,000 school districts -- will be diffuse.