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California education officials finally agree on a plan to meet key federal requirements

California education officials finally agree on a plan to meet key federal requirements
Education secretary Betsy DeVos will now decide whether to approve California's plan for satisfying a major education law. (Erik Lesser / European Pressphoto Agency)

Two years, a presidential election and many meetings after the California State Board of Education first started talking about how to satisfy a major federal education law, members finally agreed Thursday to submit a final plan.

They voted in a special meeting, a month after they opted to delay. The plan, which came together after months of back-and-forth with Betsy DeVos' U.S. Department of Education, is designed to satisfy the Every Student Succeeds Act.

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"Time now is really getting urgent for us to take some action," board President Mike Kirst said before the vote. "Delaying any vote will jeopardize the flow of the money."

In 2017-18, California received $8.1 billion in K-12 funding from the federal government, $2.4 billion of which came from ESSA.

Every Student Succeeds is the Obama administration's 2015 replacement for the No Child Left Behind Act. The law is supposed to hold states accountable for giving all students a decent education. Where No Child primarily used test scores to evaluate the success of schools, ESSA gives states more flexibility to create their own accountability systems.

After President Trump was elected, Kirst and fellow board members expressed hope that DeVos — who often voices her support for local control of schools — would give them more leeway in interpreting the law. But in December, federal education officials told state officials that their plan to satisfy ESSA still needed work.

Board members drew out the process because they were intent on keeping a focus on California's priorities rather than letting federal law determine the state's plans. They speak of the "California way," saying the state needs a plan uniquely tailored to the needs of its diverse student population.

They focused on aligning their plan to fulfill ESSA requirements with the state Local Control Funding Formula. But while the funding formula requires the state to find and help low-performing school districts, ESSA requires states to identify and aid individual schools.

In response to criticism from DeVos' staff, the final ESSA plan states that California will separately report both academic performance and change in academic performance over time to the federal government.

The state likely won't change its tool for rating schools — academic performance ratings will remain a combination of current status and change over time — but 11th-grade standardized testing scores will be added to the mix of what goes into high-school ratings.

Under ESSA, the state must identify and intervene to help the lowest-performing 5% of schools serving high-poverty populations. But federal officials leave it largely up to states to define what constitutes that bottom tier of schools.

California education officials have taken a long time to figure out how best to do this.

They wanted from the start to use the California School Dashboard, the state's online color-coded school ratings tool. The dashboard uses colors to rate schools in numerous areas — including academics, attendance, graduation, English learner progress, college readiness and chronic absenteeism — with red representing the worst, and blue representing the best.

Previous attempts to use these designations to define the bottom 5% have yielded either too few or too many schools, prompting board member Ting Sung to call the effort the "Goldilocks approach."

In California, finding the lowest 5% means identifying 303 schools.

The board agreed Thursday to include: schools whose indicators are all red; schools rated red in all categories but one; schools with ratings that all are red and orange; and schools with five or more measurements available, half of which are red.

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The state is asking the federal government for a waiver in order to use its own definition of what constitutes progress for English learners instead of the definition mandated by ESSA.

Twitter: @Joy_Resmovits

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