SI&A’s Shelton offers 2012 legislative outlook

Usually after the governor's State of the State speech and release of his budget plan, attention turns to the slow grind of legislative activities.

This year, however, the legislative process seems to be starting more slowly than usual - which might mean school officials will have fewer bills to track in the coming months. Then again, maybe they won't.

We're seeing a lot fewer two-year bills this year," said Gerry Shelton, a former veteran capitol staffer and now vice president of education policy at School Innovations & Advocacy (corporate host of Cabinet Report).

Shelton, whose last job was chief consultant to the Assembly Education Committee, noted that only five bills came before that panel earlier this month and fewer than that went up for consideration by the Senate Education Committee on the same day.

Shelton gave two explanations - one is that lawmakers have been worn down over the multi-year fiscal crisis and the inability to fund any new school programs.

"A lot of education proposals create costs and they just can't clear the appropriation process," Shelton said.

On the other hand, he noted, lawmakers for the first time in many years actually got a fall recess between September's close and the start of the new session in December.

"I think that might have led to members focusing more on bills that will be introduced in 2012 and a bit less on the two-year bills that would be heard early in January," he said. "This just means it's harder to tell what might be on the horizon."

That said, Shelton predicted that the major legislative themes of 2012 for schools would include educator evaluations, common core issues and the administration's plan for restructuring school funding.

Teacher evaluations

This issue is not going away, said Shelton, largely because the Obama administration won't let it. "There doesn't appear to be any let up - we saw this as a component of Race to the Top and other federal programs, and it's a part of their plan for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act," he said.

Last summer there appeared to be a coalition building around AB 5 by Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, D-Los Angeles, which had the support of Assembly Speaker John Perez. While that bill was set aside for further negotiations, it has returned with the author's intent of moving it forward.

Shelton said that while supporters still face a number of challenges, a more fundamental question needs to be considered: Whether the state's existing assessment system can provide the kind of student performance data to validate teacher evaluation.

"The testing system is not designed to give year-to-year growth for individual students or to make comparisons of teachers with students who have varying opportunities to grow," Shelton said. "So making those comparisons or trying to tease out the value added by a specific teacher in a given year is something I don't think the testing system supports right now."

He also points out, however, that the state is considering big changes to its assessment system - driven by the sunset of the existing Standardized Testing and Reporting program, the upcoming implementation of common core standards, the work of the national assessment consortia, the reauthorization of ESEA and recent calls from Gov. Brown to simplify the testing system.

It could be that new requirements for teacher evaluations will be incorporated into the new testing system, but doing so could raise a second challenge: the costs of developing a more complex assessment system.

Common Core

Legislative leaders and the Brown administration are still searching for cost-effective ways to bring the new common core standards in math and English into the classroom - which would include updating instructional materials and new assessments.

Shelton said the state took the first steps with bills last year aimed at providing districts with supplemental instructional materials aligned with the common core, and at restarting the state's curriculum frameworks and professional development processes. For the state to take the next step, he said the Legislature would have to take on the issue of restructuring the existing instructional materials adoption process.

Weighted pupil funding formula

Although the governor included his funding restructuring proposal as part of the January budget, Shelton said it is likely lawmakers will consider school finance reform outside budget negotiations.

He noted that while the governor's plan gives districts much more spending flexibility, it does not generate big savings to the state.

This is important for a number of reasons- perhaps the biggest is that the governor's plan could be taken out of the less-than-open budget trailer bill process and subjected to the policy committee process.

Shelton also pointed out that Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, has a legislative vehicle, AB 18, pending before the Legislature that would do many of the same things that Brown wants to do.

"I have heard Ms. Brownley say that her bill is a first step toward a weighted formula," Shelton said. "AB 18 would allow the Legislature to wait until new money is available to hold districts harmless before implementing the new allocation formula."

The governor's proposal eliminates many more categorical programs than AB 18 does, and also completes the move to a weighted pupil funding formula. Some of those items eliminated include stand-alone instructional programs, such as those in career technical education, that, according to Shelton, "are much more integral to a comprehensive instructional program than traditional targeted categoricals.

The governor's budget also includes a proposal for mandate reimbursement reform that is similar to that made in a senate bill last year; that bill was never heard in a committee.

Look for lawmakers and the education community to focus on how the new funding scheme impacts districts and pupils, and which of those become winners and losers.