Bill would recast state schools policy

Proposed legislation by state Sen. Carol Liu (D- La Cañada Flintridge) would streamline the governance of state’s K-12 education system by transferring powers from the California Board of Education to the state superintendent of public instruction.

Control over state-level education policy has for decades involved a complex and at times tense interplay between the 11-member board appointed by the governor and the elected superintendent.

It’s a system that Liu and many others have criticized as inefficient, ineffective and lacking in transparency — let alone difficult for most people to comprehend.

“If I can’t even explain it [to a reporter] clearly, how is an ordinary parent going to understand how the system works? I’ve always felt there have been too many chiefs and not enough Indians,” said Liu. “There needs to be a line drawn so the public knows who to hold responsible.”

Approved by the state Senate earlier this month, Liu’s Senate Bill 204 would end the state Board of Education’s authority to make rules and policy for public schools, recasting it as an advisory body to the governor. That power would instead be concentrated in the hands of the superintendent, including the apportionment of resources, expectations for student achievement, fiscal oversight of local districts and interventions for failing schools.

Superintendents are elected to four-year terms. The post is currently held by Tom Torlakson, a Democrat who previously served as a state senator and assemblyman.

Windy Sinnette, who will take over as superintendent of the La Cañada Unified School District this summer following the retirement of Jim Stratton, the current superintendent, said it isn’t clear what effect a shakeup in Sacramento would have on local districts.

“I don’t know what the trickledown effect would be for local education agencies, but anything they do at higher levels to improve communication and streamline bureaucracy is beneficial to us,” said Sinnette.

Liu said she expects her legislation to be discussed by the state Assembly in August but doubts it would reach the governor’s desk this year, calling the bill “a work in progress” intended to provoke debate and bring stakeholders to the table.

“The structure now is complex, inefficient, and lacking in transparency and accountability. In this context, any attempt to clarify roles and responsibilities is to be welcomed,” said Dominic Brewer, a professor and associate dean at USC’s Rossier School of Education who studied the issue for Stanford University’s Institute for Research on Education Policy & Practice.

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