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Yadira Rayo-Peñaloza, an incoming senior at UC Berkeley, nearly sat out the fall term.

She didn’t want to spend another semester taking just online courses, which is what she expects all of her classes to be when school starts up again late August.

Rayo-Peñaloza, along with her girlfriend and a few of her other friends, weighed her options, considering the likelihood of finding work during a pandemic and what a pause would mean to her financial aid. Ultimately, she decided she’d remain a student.

“It was a hard decision to just say that we’re definitely going to go back in the fall.”

She also thought about returning to campus in the fall, but will remain at home in Orange County, where she attended community college before transferring. That decision, too, was tough.

“It’s really difficult to concentrate back home,” she said. “‘Are we hurting our GPAs?’ That was our biggest concern,” she said of the conversations she and her girlfriend had. But going back to campus meant taking out a loan, “and I really don’t want to do that.”

Distance learning

So far, eight of the nine undergraduate campuses of the University of California system have published their plans for the fall term, with most estimating that only a fraction of classes will be conducted in person.

UCLA, for instance, predicts that just 15 to 20 percent of courses will take place fully in-class or in a hybrid format, and the rest will be taught remotely, while UC Merced expects 20 to 30 percent of classes to be in-person in the fall. Several campuses, including UC Merced and UC Berkeley, plan to end any in-person instruction by Thanksgiving and shift all learning online through the end of the fall term.

The campus guidelines contrast with what UC President Janet Napolitano said in May, suggesting more classes will be conducted in-person with a hybrid model. Instead, the UC plans look more like what the larger California State University has been signaling since the spring: mostly online.

A largely virtual setting has some students concerned about how professors will react.

Louis Susunaga, a 21-year-old student at UCLA, said he’s returning in the fall but taking three courses rather than four, because he’s worried professors again will overwhelm him with assignments. He said one of his professors last quarter assigned per week more than 100 pages of reading, multiple reading responses, a Zoom meeting with a group project, and a pre-recorded lecture. “That’s way more than a normal load, when we were in person.

“It’s almost ridiculous,” he said. “Just because it’s online doesn’t mean it’s easier.”

Safety practices

UC students living on campus should also expect to wear masks in most areas, practice regular social distancing, and track any symptoms to help spot early signs of novel coronavirus infection. Several campuses outlined reductions in how many students can live on campus, citing the risk of disease spread as one reason to limit rooms to one or two occupants.

At UC Merced, students living on campus and others on the university grounds will have to report symptoms through an app—currently in development—and undergo viral testing. They’ll have to wear masks, remain six feet apart from others, sneeze or cough into an elbow or tissue, and self-isolate if they’re showing coronavirus symptoms. The university will set aside “isolation rooms” for individuals who test positive or are showing COVID-19 symptoms.

Students at UC Riverside will have to clean chairs and tables they occupy with wipes that will be available in actively used classrooms. Beyond standards like social distancing and wearing masks, in-person classes will have assigned seats, and instructors will take attendance to minimize the virus spread and help with tracking if someone in the class has a positive coronavirus test result. But the university’s guidelines also state that instructors should avoid attendance-based grading “to reduce pressure on students to attend class when they are not feeling well or should be isolating.”

Most universities have said they plan on prioritizing giving housing to students with the greatest need, the criteria for which varies by campus (like students who get financial aid, veterans and former foster youth).

Even students who do get on-campus housing will need to show proof of a negative coronavirus test, per systemwide guidelines. UC Santa Barbara may—leadership there hasn’t made up its mind yet—also ask students not to travel away from campus during the fall term.

Fiscal hardship

The caps on students in dormitories, extra cleaning and risk of seeing fewer students in the fall all add to the university’s fiscal anxieties. Through May, the system has absorbed a $1.54 billion hit in added costs and lower revenues, and about $1 billion of that is the result of losses and new expenses in the system’s medical enterprises.

“This is a daunting number,” said Paul Jenny, interim CFO of the UC system, during a UC Regents meeting on health June 17.

Adding to the hardship of planning for a possible spike in COVID-19 cases is the prospect of large budget cuts due to declining revenues from housing and food services, and cuts in state support during a grueling state fiscal period. The system faces a cut of $300 million from state money meant for student instruction in a budget deal between lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom—unless the federal government comes through with another stimulus package.

Some schools have been hit financially harder than others. UCLA lost $151 million in revenue through May 31 due to cancelled housing and dining contracts and lost enrollments, according to a COVID-19 cost impact report the system sent to the state’s Department of Finance. The school also spent $18 million to make distance learning feasible. That’s more than twice as much as the $70 million UC San Diego incurred in pandemic-related expenses and lost revenue, the next-highest amount among the campuses. Those figures exclude the schools of medicine, clinical operations and medical centers. 

“This is the most complex planning exercise we have ever done,” UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said during a campus video chat last week. “We simply don’t know what is going to happen.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

When the state closed down schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March, an oft-ignored inequity in the everyday lives of Californians became glaringly obvious: A significant portion of the state’s population still lacks reliable broadband access.

When families without reliable internet have children who can no longer go to a physical school, those students’ chances of educational success decrease dramatically.

“In the Coachella Valley, we met with the superintendents of all three school districts early on in this pandemic, and the distance-learning issue was one of their top challenges,” said Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, who represents much of the eastern Coachella Valley, and serves on State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond’s newly formed Closing the Digital Divide Task Force. “It wasn’t from the standpoint of the teacher not being with the students; it was that they couldn’t even connect with some of the families, because they don’t have the services. They can’t afford it, or the technology and infrastructure just isn’t available.

“These are the families and the students who can least afford for their children not to be engaged, (which could) ultimately widen the achievement gap. Someone called this a civil rights issue—because without (broadband), you are severely disadvantaged.”

Steve Blum is the president of Tellus Venture Associates, a California management and business-development consulting company for the digital media and telecommunications industries; he specializes in developing new community-broadband systems.

“You’ve got two kinds of problems: long term and short term,” Blum said. “The long-term problem is lack of infrastructure, and that’s not something you can fix this week or this month, probably not even this year. As soon as the schools closed, and the students were told that they’ve got to start doing their work online, this problem just blossomed: It went from just being an annoyance to being a total lack of ability to participate in the 21st century—and now, it’s an immediate problem.”

This problem is not being experienced equally across the Coachella Valley’s three school districts. Scott Bailey, superintendent of the Desert Sands Unified School District—which includes schools in Indio, La Quinta, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, Bermuda Dunes and parts of Rancho Mirage and Coachella—points proudly to the district’s ability to guarantee reliable broadband connectivity to every student household, often via the district’s own broadband network. Built at the cost of $590,000 for infrastructure development and hotspot devices, with an ongoing cost of $1,300 per month, this project became a U.S. Government General Accountability Office model example of a school “district that defied the odds,” as Bailey put it. To make reliable broadband a given for the district’s 28,000 students, spread over 752 square miles, the district found a way to acquire broadband spectrum-usage permission from the Federal Communications Commission.

“My assistant superintendent, Dr. Kelly May-Vollmar, deserves a lot of credit for what’s happened,” Bailey said. “We were talking one day about how we’d never be able to get broadband, and there was no way we could get access to spectrum. How do you even start there? Do you call Sprint and ask for some? That’s not going to happen. So, she said, ‘Why not just call the FCC?’ Long story short, that’s exactly what happened. She was brave and called the FCC to determine how you could acquire it. … Now, we can honestly say that every student in our district should have adequate broadband connectivity, whether on their own or through (our network). We have devices coupled with connectivity to provide an equitable learning and teaching model.”

The reality is less optimistic for the Coachella Valley Unified School District, which includes the schools in much of Coachella, a portion of Indio, Thermal, Mecca and Salton City. Despite the recent distribution by the district of mobile-hotspot devices to roughly 3,000 student households, there are still several thousand more that have no reliable broadband connectivity. Those 3,000 hotspots were made possible because of an alliance formed by the city of Coachella and the school district.

“The city of Coachella did not donate any hotspots,” said CVUSD Superintendent Dr. Maria Gandera. “CVUSD bought them, but the city got a better deal (from Verizon Wireless) than we did, and they were kind enough to let us purchase at their price—and I can tell you that they are being used. The hotspots are being loaned out to the families, and the district is picking up the cost of the service charges through Verizon Wireless.

“Did they prove useful, and will they continue to prove useful? Absolutely. We’re continuing with summer school, and even students who are not doing summer school are still getting access to some district grade-level challenges and contests, (along with) other fun activities for the students to do that will make them think that they’re not doing (school) work—but they are,” Gandera said with a laugh. “I can tell you that over 1.1 million websites were visited by those students, (and) over 24,700 educational apps were downloaded. They’ve accessed more than 35 terabytes of data using our hotspots as of the first week of June.”

But Gandera has not forgotten about the thousands of students remaining, in her overall student body of more than 18,000, who don’t have one of those hotspots—or any other reliable internet access.

“We are trying to find ways to get more hotspots and more devices (for) our students,” she said. “We estimate that about 40 percent of the households in our district did not have connectivity. We could probably use double the amount (of hotspots)—and we still might have some issues with connecting. I can tell you that we’re continuing to have conversations with different providers, not only about (additional) hotspots, but also looking for a long-term solution for our valley.”

At the north and western end of the valley, the Palm Springs Unified School District—which includes schools in Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Thousand Palms and Sky Valley—is also struggling to cope with the needs of at least 2,000 student households that are currently without reliable connectivity or personal digital devices.

“I think that we’ve been fortunate in that, some four years ago, before I started (in this position with PSUSD), the district and the Board of Education took on the mission of having a 1-to-1 program,” said PSUSD Superintendent Dr. Sandra Lyon. “They had been very diligently ensuring that students in grades 3-12 had access to devices. Also, they were making sure that our students who didn’t have internet had an ability to get a hotspot from us that we pay for.

“We give them a Chromebook and a hotspot. Normally, students would bring them to and from school on a daily basis, and our younger students wouldn’t have access. But throughout this coronavirus time, we’ve tried to get devices into the homes of our families with young children who don’t have an older child (as well). So we’ve been running these ‘tech depots’ regularly, and giving out new hotspots if hotspots aren’t working, and taking back nonworking Chromebooks and issuing new ones. Right now, we have over 20,000 devices out there.

“There are still a handful of our students for whom the hotspots aren’t helpful, because they’re in a place that doesn’t have a tower or other internet access. So, again, it’s been a challenge—but overall, we’re in a good position.”

Online summer-school sessions are under way in all three valley school districts, as local educators make sure graduating students have their necessary course requirements completed, and support students who may have fallen behind during the school shutdowns. According to Dr. Lyon, in PSUSD schools, “We are providing access for all students online using some of our LCAP dollars and COVID-19-related funding.”

According to the California Department of Education website, the LCAP is a tool the state developed in 2013 “for local educational agencies to set goals, plan actions, and leverage resources to meet those goals to improve student outcomes.”

“This is not something that we typically would do, but we really (wanted) to try to address some of the learning gaps happening for some of our students right now,” Lyon said. “If you go to our website, it will tell you exactly how to access math and English for our elementary and middle school students. It’s (lessons and activities) that they haven’t done before, because we wanted to make sure that we were giving new opportunities. Also, there are live teacher hours that accompany them as well. The teachers are there to tutor kids through the activities and to help if they’re struggling with any of the concepts. As for high school students, we’re primarily working with kids who need the summer credits to graduate, and credit retrieval to keep students on track for graduation.”

However, that still leaves out the 5 percent of PSUSD students who have questionable ability to access the distance-learning strategies and programs.

“We’ve also been giving out paper (lesson) packets and other materials to the parents of students who come in and pick them up,” Lyon said. “I do think that one of the things we’re finding is that some of our students who aren’t necessarily able to get online with us, they’re doing other things to stay in communication. Once the COVID-19 (impact) is better understood, we’ll know better how we’re going to bring kids back (to schools in the fall). Any of the students that we determine are further behind, we’ll work to get them back on campus.”

A recent survey of 4,300 parents running households of PSUSD students shows that 28 percent plan on their children taking part in a 100 percent distance-learning strategy when fall classes return.

“I think a lot of people who have multiple generations living at home,” Lyon said, “are still unsure and fear the older family members becoming ill.”

But for those student households across our valley that remain without reliable broadband access, the problem won’t be solved before the ’20-’21 school year starts.

“We need people to get these rural areas wired,” Lyon said. “The reality is that this is the world we’re living in, and the more that our homes and our neighborhood businesses are wired and have strong (broadband) access, then the better off our kids will be as far as being competitive in the work world. It’s so important.”

Expensive infrastructure investments will be needed to truly solve the problem.

“The federal government has to step up first—and California supplements the federal money,” said Blum, of Tellus Venture Associates. “There are bills in the U.S. Congress to change these funding requirements, but none of them seem to be going anywhere, so I’m not getting my hopes up.”

Assemblymember Garcia said the state has been distributing about $300 million in funding to locales in desperate need of reliable broadband service through the California Advanced Services Fund, which was established by the Internet for All Now Act of 2017.

“My understanding is that we’ve already seen about $533 million worth of (funding being) requested,” Garcia said. “So, there’s definitely the need for this money to get pushed out. … What I’m discouraged about the most is that very few applications came from our District 56 area—even after making a really assertive effort to get folks in our cities and school districts looking at the program. So we’ve got to do a better job. We held workshops; we had the Public Utilities Commission come down to meet with folks about the challenges in our region. But I don’t believe that we had more than one application from our area or the Imperial Valley.”

Blum said school districts need to do a better job of long-term planning.

“Even if they came up with a COVID-19 vaccine tomorrow, and got everybody vaccinated by the weekend, this broadband problem is not going to go away,” he said. “It’s only going to become more and more important to have broadband access. … The alternative is to sit and wait and hope that somebody like Charter or AT&T or Comcast is going to show up eventually and fix your problems. That could be a long, long wait.”

Garcia said the pandemic has emphasized the seriousness of the broadband-access problem.

“We’re not only talking about the student needs, but we’re talking about mom and dad having to work from home, or the small-business owner who has to change their model of how they deliver a service or a product,” Garcia said. “Internet connectivity is no longer a luxury or an amenity. It’s a necessity for achieving not just economic opportunities, but we’re clearly seeing uses now in telehealth services, public-safety communications and smart agricultural technologies. So our challenge as this Closing the Digital Divide Task Force moves forward is not just to address the needs of our students, but the overall need to expand our infrastructure. This crisis is presenting an opportunity.”

Published in Local Issues

I have spent most of the last two days basically doing two things:

1. Getting everything ready to send the Independent’s June print edition to press.

2. Checking the state’s “Resilience Roadmap” page every 15 minutes for updates on the counties allowed to move further into Stage 2 of the reopening process—meaning stores can let customers inside, and restaurants can have dine-in customers.

As of 6:45 p.m., 43 of the state’s 58 counties have been given the go-ahead … and Riverside County is NOT one of them, even though the county posted the paperwork to move ahead last Friday.

This really could change at any time; San Joaquin County was added to the list since I started writing this, and about a half-dozen were added last night after business hours—including San Diego County.

Why is this such a big deal? Well, we are heading into Memorial Day weekend, and if Riverside County gets its blessing soon, some restaurants and stores could possibly allow customers inside—with restrictions and social distancing—by the time the weekend arrives. After all, some places are already open in San Diego after word came down late last night.

Also, whether or not you think we should be reopening this much already (and my feelings are beyond mixed), this whole process is undeniably fascinating.

We’ll keep watching and hitting the “refresh” button.

Today’s news:

• What if a second wave of COVID-19 washes across the country? The president said that even if that happens, he won’t close things down again (although, thankfully, it isn’t his call to make).

• A Catch-22, sort of: Educators say budget cuts caused by the pandemic will jeopardize their ability to safely reopen schools in the fall

• From the Independent: Missing concerts? Well, some people have started to do drive-in concerts—including a weekly Sunday show as the sun sets on 15 gorgeous acres in Yucca Valley. Matt King has the details.

• Consider yourself warned that this piece is depressing: According to Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom, a large portion of the jobs lost due to the pandemic are never coming back—even though as of now, employers intend on rehiring most of the people. “We know from the past that these aspirations often don’t turn out to be true,” he told The New York Times.

• Depressingly related: Mitch McConnell said the feds would not extend a boost in unemployment benefits when that increase expires.

• Why are people acting, well, so darn weird? Two psych experts, writing for The Conversation, say that when people are confronted with their own mortality, core beliefs—good and bad—get amplified. It’s a deeply interesting look at human psychology.

• While restaurants have been able to stay open to do takeout, and will be allowed to have customers inside in advanced Stage 2, bars have not, and will not. As the San Francisco Chronicle points out, a lot of bar owners think that’s decidedly unfair.

• Another primer on how numbers can be deceiving: Reported coronavirus cases have been sharply rising in California … while the infection rate has been heading downward. The reason? Significantly increased testing.

• Per usual, I took part in the I Love Gay Palm Springs podcast/videocast today. The hosts and I chatted with the fantastic Dr. Laura Rush; events expert Hugh Hysell; and designer/retailer Christopher Kennedy.

• How weird it is to be a reliable media source these days! Readership is waaaaaay up—but revenue is waaaaaay down. The latest media company to announce layoffs: The Atlantic.

• The CDC now says that you don’t have to worry too much about catching the coronavirus from contaminated surfacesalthough perhaps you should still worry a little bit.

• ABC News and the Mayo Clinic teamed up to see how reliable the various antibody tests are. The results? Not so great.

• The Wheels Are Coming Off, Chapter 987: Some 1,200 pastors across the state say they’ll hold in-person church services on May 31, whether the state allows them or not.

Augustine Casino will not be joining the Agua Caliente properties and Morongo in reopening this weekend: General manager Jef Bauer says a mid-June reopening date is more likely for the Coachella property.

• Local small businesses impacted by the pandemic could get grants of up to $10,000 that do not need to be repaid, according to Supervisor V. Manuel Perez, thanks to the county receiving a big chunk of CARES Act money. Expect more details at the June 2 Board of Supervisors meeting.

Changes are coming to the airport-security process as a result of the virus, the Transportation Security Administration announced today.

Hollywood productions—for starters, all of your favorite TV shows—have been shut down, like most everything else, as a result of COVID-19. The Los Angeles Times looks at what it’s going to take to get things running again.

• What have Americans been spending their stimulus checks/deposits on? CNBC takes a look.

Please be safe. Please be kind. Please wear a mask when you’re out and anywhere near other people. If you like this Daily Digest, and want to support it and the other quality local journalism the Independent provides, think about becoming a Supporter of the Independent, if you’re able. We’ll be back tomorrow.

Published in Daily Digest

Education is a big deal in my family. My grandmother was a teacher; my mom is a teacher; my aunt is a teacher; and my brother is on his way to becoming a teacher.

Of course, modern teachers have never had to deal with anything like this before. California school buildings are closed through at least the end of this school year—and instead, teachers are doing their best to educate students online. Because of these unusual circumstances, I decided to talk to some teachers in my life—my mom, an old high school teacher and a couple of my college professors—via email or online chat (except for my mom) about what it’s like to be a teacher during a pandemic.

“Theoretically, the quality of the learning should not be changed, but I can’t help but assume it has been diminished drastically,” said Corbyn Voyu, an assistant professor of English at College of the Desert. I am currently enrolled in her English 2 class, and Prof. Voyu has been putting a ton of effort into re-creating the same fun learning environment from her classroom in our Zoom video conferences.

“I worry about the students who specifically chose to take courses in-person rather than online,” Voyu said. “I cannot imagine their quality of learning is remaining the same. Usually at this point in the semester, there is an effort slump, which impacts the quality of reading and writing I see from students. That perpetual phenomenon, coinciding with the stay-at-home order, is making my assessment of student work more ambiguous than usual. I am constantly wondering: Is this the normal midterm decline, or the new medium of learning that’s causing students to not participate? I am not sure I will ever find a concrete answer.”

Prof. Voyu explained how she is working extra hard to keep her teaching interesting.

“I am resorting to more educational gimmicks like Kahoot! (an online quiz game), to varying degrees of success,” Voyu said. “I am culling work down to the most-essential pieces, because I know an interminable Zoom session is no fun for anyone. I am lessening the rigor of my standards by recording lectures, carrying the brunt of discussion, and extending deadlines. Mostly, I find I am trying to operate on ideals of compassion. … My students deserve to learn and, I believe, need to learn about literature, so I want to provide them the space to do that. I am really trying to follow where my students lead; I want this time to work for them rather than for me. Basically, if my students have an idea that might make their learning better, I’d do it if I can. In a regular class setting, I cannot say I am that flexible.”

I am also in adjunct teacher Steven Fuchs’ Intro to Government class. Compared to Prof. Voyu’s more free-flowing class, Prof. Fuchs’ class is primarily lecture-based. He said he appreciated the technology of the Zoom application and online discussion boards.

“I find them extremely useful, especially since I can now associate a name with a face,” Fuchs said. “This is always an issue when instructors teach large survey courses. So, in some respects, it adds a level of intimacy to the class. I will absolutely encourage students to interact via Zoom and discussions in future classes. … Except for some startup issues, I'm very pleased with the transition. I’ve been using online quizzes and papers for over five years, and taught a fully online class during winter intersession, so I think my students are lucky to have a relatively easy transition.

“Also, students are often shy about speaking up in public, so the text-only discussions I have been implementing have given them a chance to more fully express themselves and their academic abilities.”

To see how things were going at the high school level, I reached out to my old film teacher, Monica Perez, the head of the Digital Design and Production Academy at Coachella Valley High School in Thermal. She has always been tech-forward with her teachings.

“Most students are only familiar with online classes as a form of credit recovery; there has always been a brick-and-mortar classroom where kids are given multiple scaffolds and retaught if they don’t understand,” Ms. Perez said. “In this online-only setting, it is harder to gauge who needs help, because a student has to be more proactive in their learning. The quality of learning is there, because the curriculum stays the same; it is the way a student chooses to digest that learning that comes into play. There are many videos and guides that can be used to facilitate learning; kids know how to Google answers, so that concept isn’t new. (Education success) is more of a motivational factor now more than anything.”

Ms. Perez said she’s needed to allocate more time to check in with her students.

“One of the biggest differences in my teachings is my form of communication with my students,” Ms. Perez said. “I get a lot more phone calls and text messages now. Students just need to know that you care and miss them. I miss them dearly, so hearing them on the phone is a big positive difference.

“Kids don’t need to know about existentialism if they’re living it, so we (teachers) can approach these topics a little differently. I have ditched some bell/busy-work activities for more online conversation and debate. I am going to limit the craze of Zoom for only necessary times. I prefer pre-recorded material anyway; live Zoom could be used for quick Q&A sessions.”

While Ms. Perez said video conferences are useful, they can’t and shouldn’t fully replace the physical classroom.

“Video conferences are a double-edged sword, because not all students have access to connectivity,” Ms. Perez said. “They are a strong tool for students who need the ‘live’ interaction with their peers and teachers, as online classes by themselves require a lot of discipline and individual effort. I see it as any other tool. It is a fad right now because of our pandemic circumstances, but there are multiple modes of teaching and learning. … In the future, yes, I do see many riding the video-conference train, but I also see many students and teachers alike missing the organized chaos of the brick-and-mortar classroom. A perfect storm, in the end, would be an equal balance of the two mediums.”

Ms. Perez said she’s heartbroken that the class of 2020 won’t be able to fully experience their senior years.

“Many of us are very saddened that we don’t get to be with our kids for the end of the 2019-2020 school year,” Ms. Perez said. “I miss all my children, from those who make me want to pull my hair out, to those who make me a proud ‘cat mom’ everyday, to those crazy combination students who flip a coin and keep me guessing.

“If anything, this pandemic has shown the importance of education and the need to reinvent the ‘old traditional’ ways of learning to a fusion of old and new. In order for kids to thrive, we can’t teach like we taught 50 or even 10 years, ago. We have to evolve.”

Finally, I spoke to my mom about how teaching is continuing at the elementary-school level. Maureen King is a teacher at Palm Academy in Indio, and she is doing her best to make sure the learning never ceases in her third-, fourth- and fifth-grade combo class.

“We do a mandatory check-in every day with our students via video conference or email,” King said. “Every student went home with their school-issued Chromebook and a paper packet encompassing three weeks’ worth of school work. However, that was back in mid-March, so our daily check-ins have been utilizing our system of online video lessons in order to further their education. Many programs that we used in regular class are being used for distance learning, and I am able to assign specific lessons for student reinforcement when needed. Once a week, the entire class meets virtually to see one another, play some games and check on their social and emotional well-being. I also have office hours if students need one-on-one tutoring.”

King is proud of the measures being taken to continue connecting to her students, but she admitted there are some obstacles between younger students and technology.

“I find that younger students are needing more help at home to login and share assignments with their teacher,” King said. “Internet connectivity is not a given in our school population, so I am working on providing additional written packets for students who have been unable to join virtually.

“Per my school guidelines, teachers should be providing four hours of work per day, focusing on reading and writing, math and personalized passion projects. We are also stressing the importance of physical activity and the well-being of the students.”

No matter the education level, local teachers are working hard to do the best they can under the stressful circumstances.

Prof. Voyu summed up her motivations in this way: “These are unprecedented times, but I have too much respect for my students and for my subject to just allow the semester to be considered a wash.”

Published in Local Issues

Of the dozens of education bills that Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law this year, few will have a more practical impact on everyday lives than the new, later start times for California’s high schools and middle schools.

The signing of Senate Bill 328 by Democratic Sen. Anthony Portantino marked a milestone for the decades-long public-health movement to awaken public schools to the detrimental effects of adolescent sleep deprivation. But it also brought to a head a charged debate among school boards, administrators and parents over who gets to decide when to start a community’s school day.

For some California high-school students, the new law will make little or no difference; for others, it will push back school start times by 90 minutes or more. Here’s what we know about California’s landmark new school start times law.

1. What does the new law actually do?

School districts in the state will have a three-year window—until the start of the 2022-23 school year—to implement schedules that ring the first-period bell no earlier than 8:30 a.m. for high schools and 8 a.m. for middle schools. 

The new law does not mandate that middle and high schools adhere to a specific bell schedule, nor does it change the instructional minutes required of schools, so lost class time would need to be made up during the middle or at the end of the day to meet the state’s instructional time requirements.

The law also doesn’t apply to “zero” periods, meaning those classes, typically reserved for early-morning electives, could still be held before the new mandated floor on start times.

Exactly when parents and students should expect to see the change depends on their local district, and on the expiration date of the collective bargaining agreement. For some schools, the switch may not happen for another three years.

For others, it has already happened. For example, San Diego Unified School District, California’s second-largest district, had already decided prior to this law to push back start times for their high schools to 8:30 a.m. by the 2020-21 school year.

2. Which schools are in, and which ones are out?

Though the law will only apply to California middle schools and high schools, some schools will be exempt. Exactly how many is unclear, and advocates and opponents of SB 328 both agree that the state needs to clarify that part of the law.

The legislation specifically exempts “rural school districts” due to the logistical challenges and higher-than-average transportation costs that would make a change in, say, bus schedules more expensive. But the law does not define “rural.” The U.S. Department of Education, for example, has three different classifications for rural schools depending on how many miles away they are from an urban cluster.

And though “middle schools” could likely encompass various configurations (such as schools serving sixth through eighth grades or seventh and eighth only), schools that also serve primary-grade students, such as K-8 schools, will not be affected by the law.

3. As noted above, some schools already are starting later. Just how many will have to change their morning bells?

Data on this issue has been elusive, and the state does not track school start times. But a CalMatters survey of more than 400 traditional high schools in the state’s largest school districts (those with 20,000 or more students), indicates that the new law is going to have a fairly sweeping impact.

Of the 408 California high schools in big districts for which CalMatters could find bell schedule times, only 21 currently begin their instructional day at 8:30 a.m. or later, as the law will require. The majority of those high schools begin their first period of classes between 7:30 a.m. and 8 a.m., the latter mark being the most popular start time (123 schools start at 8 a.m. on the dot—including Palm Springs High School, for example, on most days).

And 27 of the 408 started their school day even earlier than 7:30 a.m. The earliest start time CalMatters found was 7 a.m. at Granite Hills High School in El Cajon. The latest was 9:05 a.m. at Early College High in Costa Mesa.

As a reference point, a study by the Centers for Disease Control found that in 2011-12, about 21 percent of middle and high schools in California started at 8:30 a.m. or later.

4. What’s behind the effort to push back school start times?

Put simply, experts and advocates say starting school too early has profound negative effects on students’ health and wellness. They point to a body of research showing that starting school later reduces rates of depression, suicide, obesity and sleep deprivation among adolescents, because they better align with their circadian rhythms and get a higher quality of sleep. Some studies also show later start times lead to higher student learning outcomes.

But the health argument has historically given way to concerns that a state mandate will take local control from communities and school districts. That latter concern is so charged that it pushed consideration of SB 328 into the final hours of this year’s legislative session, as sleep-deprived lawmakers argued its merits in the early morning hours.

Some legislators argued the bill would just inconvenience students and families, and echoed Gov. Jerry Brown, who, in an earlier veto message, wrote that the state was overreaching. Other legislators sympathized with parents whose kids attend early-start schools, and said the issue is so consequential to adolescents’ well-being that mandating later start times superseded local control.

“The science has been crystal clear for decades, but it’s been politically difficult, if not impossible, for most school districts to follow the science,” said Terra Ziporyn Snider, co-founder of the national Start School Later advocacy group, which pushed for the California legislation.

“That’s why this legislation is such a landmark move, because it empowers districts to do what’s right for kids and not have to worry about people coming after them with pitchforks.”

5. Will a later start cost schools money?

It could. A Senate Appropriations Committee analysis of SB 328 estimated that implementation of the law could put schools on the hook “potentially in the millions of dollars.” However, advocates expressed optimism that later start times would increase attendance, in turn countering the financial impact with more attendance-based state funding for schools.

SB 328 did not attach any funding, and the California School Boards Association, which opposed the bill, said legislators did not account for the work it would take for school districts at the ground level to make the logistical switch.

“We’d certainly like to see the state play its part and grapple with the reality of SB 328 as a bill that is now law, which is much more complicated than what the bill provides for,” said Troy Flint, spokesman for the state’s school boards association.

6. What’s happening nationally on this?

Where California goes, other states tend to follow. Shortly after the governor’s signing of SB 328, an Ohio legislator introduced a bill to push back school start times there.

Legislators in the Virgin Islands have also picked up on the idea. Editorial boards in newsrooms large and small have tipped their hat to California and made the case for their local schools to implement later start times.

And several school districts outside the state have already implemented start times that meet California’s new standards. In Seattle Public Schools, for example, high schools start no earlier than 8:45 a.m.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

In a steady but painstakingly slow pattern that has come to define California’s push for equity in education, statewide test scores inched up incrementally this year—though about half of the state’s students are behind in reading, and only 4 in 10 students are proficient in math.

The results of the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress tests, administered to some 3.1 million students in grades 3-8 and grade 11, were recently released by the state Department of Education. Now in their fifth year, the scores told more or less the same story of incremental growth they have been telling since the state began using the test to measure student performance under newer, more-rigorous Common Core-based standards. 

On one hand, education officials say, the scores are moving in the right direction: Statewide marks either rose or stayed flat in every reading and math portion of the exam, except for eighth-grade math. On the other, the scores are moving at what some experts and civil-rights advocates have previously described as a glacially slow pace.

The state’s high-school juniors were among the most-improved in reading and math this year, but that rise followed a significant drop the prior year that negated gains made in lower grades. A majority of students statewide, for the first time, were proficient in reading, but more than 49 percent of students still aren’t at grade level.

Though economically disadvantaged students seem to have improved at a faster rate than the rest of their peers in some areas, their passing rates in reading and math remain further behind. For example, 39 percent of the state’s economically disadvantaged students passed the reading exam, and 27.48 percent passed math, while the rest of their peers passed reading (69.48 percent proficiency) and math (58.88 percent passing) at twice the rate.

Achievement gaps highlighted by the exam also remained stark. The state’s black students (33 percent proficiency in reading and 20.55 percent in math) and Latino students (40.56 percent passing in reading and 28 percent in math) far under-performed their white and Asian peers. More than 65 percent of California’s white students passed the reading portion, and 54.23 percent passed math, while nearly 77 percent of Asian students were proficient in language arts, and 74.37 percent passed math.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond spoke with urgency about the situation. 

“Disparities between students of color and their white and Asian peers continue from year to year and demonstrate the importance of our priority initiative of closing the achievement gap,” Thurmond said in a statement. “Education equity should mean equity for all students, and right now, we are not there.”

Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the State Board of Education, concurred. “While California is trending in the right direction, the overall pace of progress is sluggish and uneven,” she wrote an op-ed column published Wednesday by EdSource.

Achievement gaps have narrowed between Latino and white students, as well as between poor and more affluent pupils, she wrote, but progress has stalled in older grades; the achievement gap has not narrowed for black students; and math scores remain “at a disappointingly low level.”

Elisha Smith Arrillaga, executive director of the Education Trust-West, an advocacy group focused on closing student achievement gaps, said “the results we see are not about students’ inability to learn or succeed; (they’re) about adult decisions that have not supported students over time.”

“Overall, we’re crawling for it as a state in terms of closing the achievement gaps we see. But we’re crawling when we really need to be sprinting,” Arrillaga said.

Results from the test fall into four buckets: “standard not met,” “standard nearly met,” “standard met” and “standard exceeded.” Scores that fall under the latter two achievement levels are considered passing marks.

Over the five years in which California students have taken the exam, statewide reading scores have improved nearly 7 percentage points, from 44 percent proficiency in 2015 to 50.87 percent in 2019. Statewide math scores have gone up at a near-identical rate, from 33 percent proficiency in 2015 to 39.73 percent in 2019.

Julien Lafortune, an education research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, said it was “encouraging, in general” that the state’s scores have gradually risen over the last five years, given that the state’s public-school system is the largest in the nation.

“It’s not probably the pace that we would want necessarily,” Lafortune said of the scores, “but it’s easy to forget this is a big system, and there are a lot of moving parts. Big systems tend to move slowly, for better or worse.” 

Lafortune also noted that although math scores have improved slightly, the proportion of students that tested in the math exam’s lowest performance level of “standard not met” increases dramatically in older grades: While 26.75 percent of California third-graders tested in the lowest bucket in math, that percentage rises to 45.48 percent in 11th grade.

Though gaps persist among California’s poor students, they are improving at a faster rate than the rest of their peers. A “cohort” of economically disadvantaged students who took this year’s exams as eighth-graders improved their proficiency rates by 3.36 percentage points in reading, while their peers’ reading scores remained virtually flat over this three-year span. While math proficiency only rose up 0.83 percentage points among this disadvantaged cohort, the passing rate for those not classified as economically disadvantaged went down 1.65 points.

How California’s economically disadvantaged students improve or stagnate on the exam is significant because a new studyby Stanford education researcher Sean Reardon has found that, despite a longstanding focus on school segregation, poverty and the income levels of student’s household are most correlated with gaps in student learning.

California has the nation’s largest public school system, with 6.2 million students, and about 40 percent of the state budget, by law, goes to public schools. That said, the state’s per-pupil investment has lagged nationally, and fell significantly during the Great Recession. In recent years, state spending per pupil has slowly crept up the rankings, but California still is only hovering around average despite a rise from $9,067 to $11,993 per student over the past five years.

The state budget signed in June by Gov. Gavin Newsom included a $2.7 billion increase in the state’s investment compared to last year, including more than $400 million for early education and child-care programs, and $646 million for students with disabilities. 

California’s shift toward more-rigorous standards—and more-rigorous testing—has been in progress for nearly a decade. But a PPIC survey co-authored by Lafortune and released in September found that about 30 percent of the state’s schools, many of them rural, still hadn’t fully adopted Common Core. Even where the new standards are in place, PPIC found, gains have been modest so far.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

Despite speculation about bold moves—in a far-left direction, even for this blue state—Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative Democrats actually landed a budget Thursday that’s surgical about new taxing and spending while still keeping promises to help poor Californians and working families.

Under the $214.8 billion spending plan, the state inched closer to universal health coverage, expanding Medi-Cal to all low-income young adults regardless of immigration status. State lawmakers also charted a course to increase tax credits to the working poor and boost subsidies to middle-income Californians to buy health coverage. There were significant investments in early education and housing, while a portion of the surplus was diverted to pay down pension liabilities.

While Democrats began the year with a surplus of ideas for taxing Californians, only a few strategic levies survived the negotiation process, specifically a fine on individuals who don’t have health insurance under a state mandate. There’s even a little tax relief: Parents, for instance, will get a temporary tax exemption on diapers.

One hitch? The devil is in the details, some which have yet to be worked out. Though Democrats met their deadline for a balanced spending plan, most of the underlying policy to enact the budget wasn’t hashed out—and may not be for weeks. Call it a learning curve: This was the new governor’s first time negotiating with seasoned legislative leaders who know how to count votes. Look for more action in coming trailer bills.

Here’s what you need to know about California’s new budget—including maybe, just maybe, the first steps toward the establishment of a four-year college in the Coachella Valley.

Yes to Health Care for Undocumented Young Adults

The Legislature agreed to the governor’s plan to expand Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program for low-income people, to young adults ages 19-25. It’s a step toward offering free health care to all undocumented adults since the state already makes Medi-Cal available to children regardless of immigration status.

The Senate had proposed going further by offering Medi-Cal to undocumented seniors 65 and older. However, none of the leaders backed offering health care to all low-income immigrants.

The state expects an estimated 90,000 young adults could gain coverage when the benefit begins next year. Already, 76,000 have registered for a limited version of Medi-Cal that covers emergency services and prenatal care available to low-income people regardless of immigration status. The price tag for this expansion? About $98 million a year.

It’s worth noting the state also affirmed its commitment to restoring optional Medi-Cal benefits. During the recession, coverage for audiology, optical, podiatry, speech therapy and incontinence creams had been taken away.

Obamacare Lives: A $695 State Mandate to Carry Health Coverage

Starting next year, California will join New Jersey, Vermont and the District of Columbia in requiring residents carry health coverage or face a $695 state penalty—a fine that will go up each year with inflation.

The state individual mandate aims to replace the federal one that Republicans repealed in their effort to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. The administration says California needs to act, because without a mandate, the number of Californians without coverage—10.4 percent in 2016—will go back up. Separately, a study conducted by the University of California estimated the uninsurance rate will rise to 12.9% by 2023, or 4.4 million people, without state action.

Money raised from the penalties, about $450 million over three years, will be used to give bigger subsidies to those who purchase private insurance through the state’s health coverage exchange, Covered California.

Newsom and lawmakers hope to expand assistance to 190,000 middle-income Californians making between $48,000 to $72,000 a year, according to Health Access California, a health advocacy group.

Fear of Recall = Not Many New Taxes

The budget includes a plan to impose a fee—that still needs to be voted on—of no more than 80 cents a month on each telephone line to help digitize the state’s 911 system, which is still analog. The next-generation system would improve call delivery, better location data and incoming text capability.

Other than that and the health-care mandate, lawmakers opted against most of the new taxes proposed early in the session. In fact, California parents and women will get a sales tax exemption on diapers and menstrual products (though only for two years).

Notably rejected, given the state’s current $21.5 billion surplus, was Newsom’s push for a 95-cent tax on most residential water bills to fund-clean-drinking water initiatives in the Central Valley. Instead, the Legislature worked out a deal to clean up toxic water by diverting money generated from big polluters under the state’s cap-and-trade program.

Some environmental groups questioned using clean air money to pay for drinking water, but supporters reasoned that water is being contaminated with arsenic and other toxic chemicals from the heavy use of fertilizers, so it makes sense to draw the $100 million for cleanup from the agriculture industry’s portion of the greenhouse gas fund.

One issue that won’t be resolved this week is whether California will conform its tax code to match federal changes made by Republicans in 2017. Newsom is relying on the projected $1.7 billion increase in net revenue from that to expand the state’s earned income tax credit, the centerpiece of his anti-poverty agenda.

Assembly Democrats in swing districts are skittish about limiting deductions and losses that can be claimed by some businesses. They know the fate of former Sen. Josh Newman, who was recalled from his Orange County seat after voting to raise California’s gas tax. Tax conformity requires a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to pass, so the pressure is on.

Paying Debt and Rainy-Day Saving

Lawmakers embraced the governor’s proposal to use some of the surplus to make extra pension payments, a step Newsom says is necessary to tame the state’s $256 billion retirement liability for state workers and teachers.

The Legislature approved supplemental payments of $3 billion to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and $1.1 billion to the California State Teachers’ Retirement System for the state’s portion of unfunded liability.

To relieve school districts across the state, the Legislature will contribute a total of $3.15 billion toward paying down their liabilities and reducing their payroll contribution rates. One difference is where it will go.

Previously, Newsom had all the extra payments going to the teachers' pension fund—a reaction, in part, to teachers strikes that erupted as he took office. Now a portion of that money will be doled out to CalPERS. The change was made in recognition that while teachers are members of CalSTRS, many other school employees from janitors to bus drivers belong in the state’s other public-employee pension fund.

Besides paying down California’s “wall of debt,” as former Gov. Jerry Brown called it, the state is shoring up for a downturn—or in Newsom-speak, “building budget resiliency.” The new budget carries a roughly $20 billion reserve from several rainy-day funds. This amount, while hefty, would be easily wiped away in a downturn. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the state would need as much as $40 billion to cover the budget in a moderate recession.

Big Spending on Housing

With new commitments topping $2 billion, the budget represents the most important action the governor has taken so far on housing and homelessness. The lion’s share will target the state’s homeless population, including $650 million in grants for cities and counties to build and maintain emergency shelters, and $100 million for wrap-around care for the state’s most vulnerable residents. Another $500 million will go toward quintupling the size of the state’s affordable housing financing fund, plus hundreds of millions earmarked for cities to update their often outdated housing plans.

While lawmakers and Newsom have agreed to cut big checks, it’s not clear who’ll get the money, and with what strings attached. Big-city mayors and lawmakers want homelessness grants directed towards the state’s largest 13 cities, while Newsom wants to spread out the money to include counties.

Newsom also wants to deny transportation funds to cities not building enough housing. As of Thursday, lawmakers were still negotiating a scaled-back version of the proposal. Another Newsom proposal that speeds construction of homeless shelters by sidestepping environmental laws also remains unresolved.

Lending a Hand to Working Families

Expanding California’s earned income tax credit has quickly become one of Newsom’s signature anti-poverty programs, because it gives a cost-of-living refund to low-income working families. Lawmakers are poised to triple the program from $400 million to $1.2 billion to provide a $1,000 refund for families with children under 6 and expand income eligibility from $24,950 to $30,000.

Anti-poverty advocates had wanted Newsom to include undocumented workers who file with individual taxpayer identification numbers instead of Social Security numbers. That proposal did not make the final version of the budget. Still, the administration estimates the current expansion will increase the number of beneficiaries from 2 million to 3 million households.

The budget also will make it easier for low-income families with children to qualify for assistance, increasing the CalWORKs asset limit to $10,000 and the motor vehicle exemption to $25,000—changes that will allow people to save and hang on to cars that can get them to work.

And parents of all incomes will get a longer paid family leave to care for new babies—eight weeks, up from the current six weeks, starting in July of next year. The goal will be to boost the benefit to 90 percent of most wages, up from the current maximum of 70 percent.

The K-14 Kids Did All Right

As required by law, the lion’s share of the budget goes to public schools, with nearly $102 billion in state money to be pumped into California classrooms and community colleges, plus another $389 million in a special reserve fund for schools. Though the figure is an all-time high, California is still viewed as lagging in per-pupil spending, in part because of the high cost of living.

Democrats are also demanding more stringent oversight of charter schools, which can operate like private schools, tend to be non-union and have proliferated in big cities such as Oakland and Los Angeles. Newsom proposed prohibiting charter schools from blocking or disenrolling special-education students who require more support for disabilities. Lawmakers readily embraced that change.

The budget includes $300 million to build more kindergarten classrooms in an effort to boost full-day kindergarten programs. Newsom had initially proposed $750 million but that was reduced after a study found most part-day kindergarten programs are in wealthier communities.

After-school programs will get a $50 million boost over the $600 million or so the state is currently spending. The money will help cover the cost of minimum wage increases enacted during Brown’s tenure.

So Did the Little Ones

In emphasizing early education, Newsom and lawmakers agreed to expand day care and preschool slots by the thousands while investing in training for child care providers.

Newsom gets $50 million in seed money to start child savings accounts for college and post-secondary education. He initially asked that all of it go toward pilot projects with First 5 California and local governments, but the Legislature is designating $25 million to that. The other $25 million will create a state program with the Scholarshare program in the Treasurer’s Office.

More Free College and Help for Student Parents

Newsom and legislators delivered on a $45 million promise to fund a second year of tuition-free community college for first-time, full-time students at campuses participating in the state’s College Promise program.

Other big winners include students with children, who will be eligible to receive grants of up to $6,000 to help cover their families’ living expenses. The budget boosts by about 15,000 the number of competitive Cal Grants—a significant jump, but far less than the 400,000 qualified students who applied for the state scholarships last year and didn’t receive them.

The University of California and California State University systems will receive money to increase enrollment, and waive tuition during the summer to help low-income students graduate faster. Lawmakers also set aside funds for campuses to combat hunger and homelessness, strengthen veterans resource centers, and provide more mental health counseling. A center at the University of California San Francisco is getting a $3.5 million earmark for dyslexia screening and early intervention.

Backers of the state’s controversial new online community college fended off an effort to slash the college’s funding, clearing the way to enroll its first class this fall. And CSU will get $4 million to study five possible locations for a new campus: Stockton, Chula Vista, San Mateo, Concord and Palm Desert.

Lots for Police Training; a Little for Police Records

Reflecting the Legislature’s focus this year on reducing police shootings, the budget includes $20 million to train police officers on de-escalation tactics, and how and when to use force. Outside the budget, bills to set a tougher standard for police to use deadly force and require more officer training are advancing through the Legislature, reflecting a compromise between civil rights advocates and law enforcement groups.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office will get $155,000 to implement the new state law he’d been resisting: making law-enforcement misconduct records public. Becerra will also have to report to the Legislature on how many requests his office processes, and how much time is spent on that. A judge ruled in May that Becerra must produce the records; previously he had said he would not release them until the courts clarified whether he had to.

Powering Down to Cope With Wildfires

Besides beefing up the state’s firefighting capability and disaster preparedness, California will add powering down to its to-do list for coping with climate change-driven wildfires.

The budget doles out $75 million to state and local agencies whenever investor-owned utilities decide to shut off electricity during red flag weather warnings. One note: The Assembly added language to track how the money is used.

CALmatters reporters Matt Levin, Felicia Mello and Laurel Rosenhall contributed to this report. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

The turmoil in the for-profit college industry has affected California as much as any state, with the closures of major chains leaving thousands of students deeply in debt and their educations on hold.

Meanwhile, the state agency in charge of regulating private colleges and vocational schools has struggled to enforce California law—and now lawmakers and agency officials are seeking to tighten oversight of the troubled sector.

A package of seven bills unveiled by Democratic state legislators would make major changes to the standards for-profit colleges must meet to operate in California.

One proposal, AB 1340, would bar schools from enrolling California students in programs designed to prepare them for careers if their students’ debt after graduation rises above a certain percentage of their incomes. It’s based on a “gainful employment” rule adopted by the Obama administration and since delayed by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. The rule aimed to hold schools accountable for their promises to provide students with a path to a stable career.

“The story is commonplace—students taking out thousands of dollars of loans to enroll in a career-training program they have been led to believe will lead to a job, only to discover they’ve got themselves in a horrible financial hole with no return on their investment,” said the bill’s author, Assemblymember David Chiu of San Francisco.

A previous attempt to enact a California version of the gainful employment rule failed. But that was before California joined 17 other states in suing over the rule’s delay, and DeVos announced her intention to repeal it altogether.

About 160,000 California students attend degree-granting for-profit colleges, with many more studying for a career at one of the state’s for-profit vocational schools. Those numbers include 10 percent of black undergraduates, according to a recent study by the Campaign for College Opportunity.

This number includes veterans who use GI Bill money to pay for both tuition and living expenses. Another bill, by Assemblymember Susan Eggman of Stockton, would prevent colleges from using GI Bill funds to rely more heavily on taxpayer money than federal law otherwise allows.

A third, AB 1344 from Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, would expand the number of state rules with which out-of-state colleges enrolling California students in online programs must comply.

A staffer at the California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools, which represents many of the state’s for-profit colleges, said no one was available to comment by press time on the legislative push.

Chiu said he was inspired to work with colleagues on the issue after an investigation last fall by CALmatters and The Sacramento Bee that found California’s Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education often failed to enforce state laws designed to prevent predatory recruiting and other abuses at for-profit schools.

The bureau was inspecting schools less than half as often as California law requires, the investigation found, and had a backlog of nearly 1,200 unresolved student complaints, many of which had been pending for years. Some students said their complaints of fraud had been dismissed with little explanation.

This month, the bureau’s parent agency, the Department of Consumer Affairs, announced it had created a special five-member task force of current and retired investigators to reduce the backlog.

The bureau will also be reorganized, with its current enforcement chief transferring to an administrative role, and a new special investigator with experience in complex investigations hired to oversee complaints, said spokesperson Matt Woodcheke.

The reorganization “was a long time coming, and we hope that moving forward, the bureau is much more well-positioned to serve the needs of students in California,” he said.

Bureau staff said they had reduced the complaint backlog by about a quarter since November—though it’s unclear whether that was due to staffing changes or to the bureau’s decision to close out pending complaints if a student did not respond quickly to a letter asking if they wished to continue their case.

Attorney Megumi Tsutsui, a member of the bureau’s independent advisory committee who also represents students in fraud cases, said she hoped the new attention to complaints would lead to more thorough investigations.

“It’s great that they’re putting all these resources in place,” she said. “What I wouldn’t want them to do is just find ways to close cases by marking them done and moving on.”

If lawmakers pass AB 1340, and Gov. Gavin Newsom signs it, California would be the first state in the nation to establish its own gainful employment rule. At least some of the responsibility for enforcing the rule would likely fall to the bureau.

Chiu said he and his colleagues would be monitoring the bureau’s evolution closely.

“At this time when our students are being defrauded and victimized, we need the bureau to step up,” he said.

This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

A month after being inaugurated, Gov. Gavin Newsom used his State of the State speech on Tuesday, Feb. 12, to make his strongest showing yet that Jerry Brown is no longer in charge.

He proposed scaling back two of Brown’s legacy projects—a high-speed train and a pair of tunnels to move water from north to south. He rescinded Brown’s deployment of California National Guard troops to the Mexican border. He voiced support for education and housing policies from which Brown stayed away.

All leaders want to distinguish themselves, so it’s no shock that Newsom is carving his own path. California’s last several governors took office vowing to right the perceived wrongs of their predecessors. Brown himself, in his first term, was a change agent.

But they were Democrats replacing Republicans, or vice versa. Newsom is the first Democrat to follow a Democrat into the California governor’s office in more than a century—and the friendship between the Brown and Newsom families goes back generations. That creates a challenge that other recent governors have not faced: Newsom must pay homage to the legacy of his predecessor while also establishing his own vision.

It’s not an easy needle to thread—as evidenced by Newsom’s response when asked if he is breaking away from Brown’s course:

“We’re building on a lot of the work that’s been done,” he said in a brief interview after the speech. “We’re just being more sober about it, more deliberative about it, more focused and more transparent.”

At this early stage in his governorship, here are five key ways Newsom is differentiating himself:

Border Patrol: Early last year, President Donald Trump asked border-state governors to beef up their National Guard troops along the Mexican border. Brown responded by saying California troops wouldn’t enforce immigration laws or “build a new wall.” But he agreed to add 400 troops, saying they would focus on combating transnational crime.

Newsom rolled back Brown’s order this week, reassigning most of the troops from the border to areas threatened by wildfire and illegal marijuana grows. Those remaining at the border “will focus on stopping criminals smuggling drugs and guns through existing border checkpoints,” Newsom said in his speech. “This is our answer to the White House: No more division, no more xenophobia and no more nativism.”

High-speed rail: Since his first stint as governor in the 1970s, Brown has advocated for a new high-speed train to connect northern and southern California. He took steps more recently to support the project by negotiating funding for it from California’s signature climate change program. “I make no bones about it,” Brown said last year. “I like trains, and I like high-speed trains even better.”

Newsom said Tuesday that he has “nothing but respect for Gov. Brown’s and Gov. Schwarzenegger’s ambitious vision.” But he derided the current plan for a train from San Francisco to Los Angeles, saying it “would cost too much and take too long.”

Instead, Newsom embraced a more limited rail line, from Merced to Bakersfield. He also announced a new chairman for the rail authority, Lenny Mendonca, and a plan to post rail spending publicly online, a step meant to hold the administration accountable for cost overruns.

Republicans, long opposed to the new train, welcomed Newsom’s tack. State Sen. Shannon Grove of Bakersfield, who will soon take over as the Senate Republican leader, thanked Newsom for scaling back the project and making spending on it more transparent. “That was very responsible,” she said. “I’m pleasantly surprised.”

Water: Newsom also wants to scale back Brown’s controversial plan to carve two massive tunnels through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to move water to Southern California. Instead, as he said during the campaign and reiterated in his speech, he wants to build one tunnel.

The idea was quickly embraced by Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who said he’s “been skeptical of the two tunnel approach for a while. Rethinking it and retooling it makes a lot of sense.”

To help carry out Newsom’s vision, the governor appointed a new chair for the state water board, replacing Brown’s pick, Felicia Marcus, with his own: Joaquin Esquivel.

Education: When it comes to keeping track of how students are performing at California public schools, Newsom and Brown have very different views. Brown repeatedly rejected the idea of developing a database to track student performance over time, saying he disagreed with a focus on test scores and feared the data could be abused to support prejudice. Newsom is embracing a long-term student database as a way to measure which programs advance student learning.

“We need clear and achievable standards of transparency, more information sharing, and accountability for all public schools,” he said.

Newsom used the speech to announce his pick to lead the state Board of Education, naming Linda Darling-Hammond to the post. A former Stanford professor, she is an expert in teacher training and has chaired the state’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing for the last eight years.

Housing and homelessness: Tackling California’s extraordinarily high cost of housing—and the related epidemic of homelessness—was never a top priority for Brown. Even as he left office, he said he didn’t think there was much the state could do make homes more affordable.

Newsom wants to change that by holding cities accountable for building affordable housing. He already sued the city of Huntington Beach for not building enough, and said in his speech that he wants to meet with 47 other cities that aren’t meeting their housing requirements.

Newsom also announced that he is establishing a new commission on homelessness, to be led by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Politics

So many school districts are struggling to deliver the basics of an equal opportunity for education that one in three statewide has been targeted for special assistance, according to a comprehensive state report card released by the California Department of Education last week.

The state identified 374 school districts out of roughly 1,000 that qualify for additional help—more than 60 percent more than last year, when the state issued its first set of ratings under the new “school dashboard” system.

School districts that qualify for the so-called “State System of Support” show such low scores or so little progress among student groups that they fall into a “red zone” on two or more educational indicators, from test scores to suspension rates and chronic absenteeism. Last year, the state identified 228 such districts, but critics questioned those numbers, noting that test scores pointed to a far more widespread need for assistance. Since then, the dashboard has been tweaked.

None of the three Coachella Valley school districts had any overall ratings in the red zone—but 29 of the 78 schools within the local school districts (37.2 percent) fell into the red zone in at least one of the six categories measured this year.

Carrie Hahnel, interim co-executive director of Education Trust-West, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on closing student achievement gaps, said one-third of the state’s districts “are struggling with equity.”

“(This) should create a tremendous urgency for our newly elected state leaders and local leaders to start to do something dramatically different to support our students so that several years from now, far fewer schools are struggling to create opportunities for all students,” Hahnel said.

The California School Dashboard, intended to offer a more holistic assessment of public-school performance, was created in part to help the state identify low-performing school districts and help them. It also replaces the state’s old standardized-test-based system as a way for communities to see how their schools are doing.

To that end, this year’s dashboard paints a somewhat chaotic picture, reflecting both the California school system’s vast size and its vast mission. Like the aggregate data earlier this year on standardized test scores—which showed a majority of California students underperforming in basic subjects, and little or no progress in closing the achievement gap between affluent and underprivileged children—its color-coded charts are a call for action and dispiriting.

Only 40 percent of California’s public schools received “passing” marks in English language arts last year—and only 33 percent met the state’s targets in math. More than half of the state’s schools were in or near the “red’ zone on chronic absenteeism, and even supposed bright spots, such as graduation rates, were clouded by the state’s widespread use of online “credit recovery” courses and other techniques used by districts to deter dropouts, and perhaps artificially inflate the proportion of students who actually meet requirements to graduate.

The dashboard itself also remains a somewhat controversial work in progress. On one hand, its trove of data on multiple barometers is far more three-dimensional than the old system. Schools no longer receive a single overall rating by the state, and the new system takes into account not only a school’s performance, but whether it improved or declined from the prior year.

But critics complain that it’s confusing, even with adjustments in this second year and the addition of new indicators to deepen the picture. The dashboard rates schools’ performance on an indicator using five different colors. Red is the lowest achieving mark, followed by orange, yellow, green and, finally, blue, the highest rating. A school is considered to have a favorable mark if they are rated green or blue on an indicator, though the state’s rubric does not explicitly spell that out.

In fact, the state’s color labels in general have broad interpretations, to the point that it can be difficult to deduce the significance of a rating. For example, a school that has a middle-of-the-pack yellow rating in math could either have posted very high scores this year that significantly dropped compared to the year before, or achieved very low scores that significantly improved from the previous year.

And a green rating does not necessarily mean that a majority of a school’s students are meeting grade-level expectations. It doesn’t even mean that all of its various student sub-groups aren’t in the yellow, orange or red.

That said, an analysis by CALmatters and the Independent of schools’ performance ratings found widespread room for improvement:

• Chronic absenteeism: About 3,600 elementary schools across the state-—about 47 percent—received red and orange ratings on this indicator, meaning that more than 10 percent of their students missed 18 days or more out of the school year. Officials say this statistic is important, because it helps indicate a student’s engagement and whether they’re likely to drop out of school. Of the 64 schools within the valley’s three school districts receiving ratings in this category (high schools were not measured), 16 were in the red zone, with 34 in the orange zone. That means just 14 received yellow or better ratings.

• School suspensions: More than 5,000 schools, or roughly 53 percent, received green or blue ratings in this indicator (including 56.2 percent locally). About 30 percent were rated red or orange (35.9 percent locally). While school officials are generally optimistic about the state’s direction in this category, many schools continue to have disparities in school suspensions that negatively impact black and Hispanic students.

• Graduation rates: One of schools’ overall top-performing indicators, more than 1,000 high schools, or about 58 percent, were rated green or blue for their graduation rates (including 11 of 17 locally). This backs the state’s record graduation rate touted by many school officials. But there’s the aforementioned credit recovery asterisk, and ...

• On college/career readiness, schools are faring worse. One of the new indicators on the dashboard measures how well California’s high schools prepare students for postsecondary careers. About 675 schools, or 38 percent, were rated green or blue in this category—but just four of 17 local schools were rated green, with no blue ratings. The state gave nearly half, 47 percent, of high schools a red or orange rating.

A closer look underscored the diversity of California, where more than 6.2 million students are enrolled in some of the most elite and most challenged public schools in the nation.

The three Coachella Valley school districts received decidedly mediocre ratings. The east valley’s Coachella Valley Unified School District—where 91.3 percent of students are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, and 46.3 percent are English language learners—received middle-of-the-road yellow ratings in all of the categories, save graduation rate and chronic absenteeism, where the district received even worse orange ratings.

The west valley Palm Springs Unified School District—where 88.5 percent of students are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, and 32 percent are English language learners—received green ratings in the graduation rate and college/career categories—but orange ratings in the other four categories.

The Desert Sands Unified School District—with 71.6 percent of students considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, and 23.8 percent English language learners—earned green ratings for graduation rate and suspension rate; a yellow rating in the college/career category; and disappointing orange ratings in the other three. 

Elsewhere in the state: West Contra Costa Unified, where 72 percent of students are socioeconomically disadvantaged and one-third are English language learners—and where California’s new superintendent of public instruction, Tony Thurmond, was once on the school board—rated orange in reading and math and orange in student suspensions.

Meanwhile, in Kentfield Elementary, an affluent Marin County district of 1,200 kids whose residents include Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, the dashboard scores were an upbeat mosaic of blues and greens. Only about 10 percent of Kentfield Elementary kids come from low-income households.

Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school district and California’s largest, ranked yellow in both reading and math, with a blue for its low suspension rate of 0.5 percent.

And at all three districts, their wildly different academic performance ratings notwithstanding, the rating for chronic absenteeism was a glaring orange.

Michael Kirst, the president of the California State Board of Education, which developed the school-accountability system, said in a statement that the dashboard “shows us which students have the greatest needs and which areas of our educational system need the most attention, which is exactly what it was designed to do.

“Challenges that once may have been hidden, such as how poverty, homelessness and disability affect student learning, are now in sharp focus,” Kirst said. “Conversely, it also shows us which school districts are succeeding so they can serve as models for others as we build professional sharing networks throughout the state.”

Hahnel, of EdTrust-West, said the new dashboard is “a big facelift” from its first version, but that “there are still issues with accessibility.”

“There’s a lot of data to explore, and that’s great,” Hahnel said, “but it’s not always intuitive, and it does take some digging and deciphering to make sense of it all.”

While this year’s dashboard measures more data than it did the year before, it’s drawn some criticism for what it’s left out. The dashboard now measures schools’ performance in addressing chronic absenteeism, but not at the high school level, where data is more likely to show higher rates of absences among older students.

Samantha Tran, senior managing director for education policy at Children Now, an Oakland-based nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group, said it’s “really unfortunate” that the dashboard lacks chronic absenteeism for high schools. The metric, Tran said, helps you find “kids who are not engaged fundamentally” in school and who would be less likely to graduate.

“You really should have it on the dashboard, color code it and make sure districts are looking at it,” Tran said. “(Chronic absenteeism) is one of those leading indicators where you can really turn around what’s happening for a kid.”

Click on the images in the gallery below to see charts with local school information. For complete information on each school and school district, visit caschooldashboard.org.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. This story was originally published on Dec. 10 and updated on Dec. 27.

Published in Local Issues

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