California education issues to watch in 2023 — and predictions of what might happen

Credit: Alison Yin/EdSource

2022 turned out, as viewers of “The Crown” would say, annus horribilis. A dreadful year. How could so many things run off the rails?

Oh, you thought I was talking about the state of California education. I’m referring to my predictions for 2022. What an embarrassment.

I predicted an initiative for a voucher-like education savings account would get 40% of votes in the November election. It never made the ballot.

I predicted chronic absenteeism would rise to 20% in 2021-22, and Gov. Gavin Newsom would direct money and create an approach to deal with it. It turned out to be 30%, and no, he didn’t, though he sprinkled one-time money on just about everything else.

I got a few things right, too, though they were, frankly, pretty safe bets.  I predicted that Newsom would agree either to float new school construction bonds or put facilities money in the budget. He did the latter. I predicted he’d provide more than a cost of living adjustment for the Local Control Funding Formula, which provides districts’ operating money. He delivered in spades with an extra record $4.3 billion.

Unbowed, I look to 2023. It won’t be an easy year – that’s a cinch to predict. The magnetometer of school board tensions is amping up – over pay negotiations, the politics of race and gender, staff shortages. There is pressure to make good on once-in-a-generation possibilities – for transitional kindergarten, community schools, expanded hours of learning – without the wherewithal, in many districts, to rise to the challenge.

So grab your scorecard, make your predictions on a scale of 1 (no chance) to 5 (sure thing), put them in a drawer and haul them out in a year. My bets are in fensters, a crypto currency Sam Bankman-Fried once rated as “must buy.”

State funding

Let’s start with Proposition 98, the formula setting TK-12’s and community colleges’ share of the state General Fund and eternal source of opportunities and arguments. Two straight years have brought a deluge of state revenue, but in 2023-24, the state will start draining the aquifer. Even if California dodges an outright recession, income from a progressive income tax will fall; the Legislative Analyst’s Office is predicting a Prop. 98 deficit of several billion dollars. Newsom will up the estimate in the budget he’ll announce next week. How will that play out?

COLA: With inflation still high, school districts will say their #1 priority is a full cost of living adjustment, likely 8%, for the funding formula. Legislative leaders will swear to it and Newsom will commit. Likelihood it will happen in the June budget

Then what? If the budget still won’t balance, after siphoning from the Prop. 98 rainy day reservoir, Newsom could take back some of the uncommitted $13 billion in one-time funding from the 2022-23 budget. I’ll bet his target will be the $3.9 billion arts, music and instructional materials discretionary block grant (discretionary as in you can ignore arts and music and spend it however you want).

Likelihood he and legislators will have to claw back some one-time money from this year:  

Likelihood arts, music and instructional materials will take the hit: 

No new programs exceptTo superintendents’ cheers, Newsom will pledge there’s no money for new programs, at least the ones that legislators pass. He’ll have a couple of his own, though.

His top priority: Follow through on a promise he made to Assemblywoman Akilah Weber, D-San Diego, last fall to add ongoing funding to the Local Control Funding Formula for Black students, as persistently the lowest performing student group not already designated for extra money. Fewer than one in six Black students met standards in math, compared with one-third of all students, in the latest Smarter Balanced results.

Last fall, Weber pulled her bill for extra funding, which would have passed, with an understanding that she and the administration would agree on a plan to accompany the money.

Likelihood Newsom will add $500 million per year for this purpose, with requirements that districts spell out how this money will make a difference:  

Tutoring: Research shows face-to-face tutoring of individuals or small groups is the most effective strategy for learning recovery. But many districts don’t know where to turn for it. Last year, the state waded into tutoring and mentoring through College Corps, in which about 1,500 community college, CSU and UC students can earn $10,000 in tuition and housing stipends by tutoring 15 hours a week. It’s a good start that the state could sharpen, by focusing on early grade reading and middle school math. Candidates in teacher credentialing programs could be enlisted; Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy in Mountain View, which has woven tutoring into his online learning platform, has offered help.

Newsom should take him up on it; expanding College Corps tutoring would be a rounding error in a $100 billion TK-12 budget. But will he?

Likelihood Newsom will scale up College Corps tutoring:  

School construction

This year’s state budget applied $1.7 billion of the General Fund surplus to shore up school construction, but state matching funding from Prop. 51, passed in 2016, will be exhausted this year. With a deficit, not a surplus this year, the logical option is to put a school construction bond on the March 2024 ballot. The big question is whether CSU and UC will horn in, creating a bigger bond.

 Likelihood that the Legislature, with Newsom’s consent, will put a school bond on the 2024 ballot: 

Tensions with labor

Districts have stockpiled their own surpluses, helped by an 8% COLA in consecutive years. Teachers, whose salaries are the biggest item in a district budget, are demanding big multi-year raises after years of pandemic stress. But districts are experiencing rising costs; many anticipate declining enrollments, and they want to avoid layoffs of the staff they hired with soon to expire state and federal Covid relief.

 Likelihood that teachers unions in at least a half-dozen school sizable districts (over 20,000 students) will go out on strike over the next calendar year:  

Academic rebound?

It will take several years for students to work through the impact of Covid on learning. There’s optimism that scores on the Smarter Balanced math and English language arts tests, which plummeted in 2022, will improve in 2023.

But probably not for this year’s third graders, taking their first state test. They were in kindergarten when Covid struck in March 2020 and struggled with Zoom as first graders and with masks in second grade – big handicaps for learning reading.

Only 42% of last year’s third graders were at grade level. The scores on this year’s third graders could be shocking.

 Likelihood that the percentage of third graders meeting standards in English language arts falls below 38% overall, under 20% for Black students and under 25% for Latino students:  

Early literacy

Newsom and the Legislature have committed massive resources to establish transitional kindergarten, fund literacy coaches in poor schools and create teacher residencies and inducements to enter teaching. But abysmal reading attainment by third grade underscores the state’s negligence in early literacy. It collects no data on reading development until Smarter Balanced tests at the end of third grade. Under the mantra of local control, California has remained on the sidelines as two dozen of states have required research-based textbooks and instructional methods consistent with the “science of reading.” Advocates are clamoring the state board and the California Department of Education to act; here are potential areas:

One of several states that don’t mandate screening for dyslexia, California is funding UC San Francisco to develop a sophisticated screening tool, called Multitudes, to detect dyslexia and other reading challenges.

Will California mandate a universal screening for dyslexia this year?  

Will it promise districts funding for training and deploying Multitudes?  

Will CDE choose a county office to train literacy coaches that commits in an MOU to instruct coaches in the science of reading?  

The State Board of Education doesn’t include a section on early literacy in districts’ and charter schools’ Local Control and Accountability Plans, their annual planning document.

Likelihood that it will start requiring them to report in their LCAPs how they plan to improve reading instruction:  

Math Curriculum:

The State Board of Education was expected to adopt a new guide for teaching math last spring. But an onslaught of letters pro and con, plus extensive comments – Stanford Math Professor Brian Conrad alone created a website for his doctorate-length critique – led the state board to send it back for a third extensive revision. The California Mathematics Council  and many teachers praised its focus on inclusive practices and its theme of “big ideas” that unify math concepts. Among criticisms, UC & CSU professors said it misconstrued data science and favored it over traditional courses for STEM majors. The CDE and consultants at WestEd’s Regional Center have been slogging through the document and will return by summer with the final draft.

Likelihood that the final document includes these changes: It will be a third shorter and include K-8 “big ideas” minus strategies not backed by research. It will reiterate it’s fine to offer Algebra to middle school students ready for it. It will eliminate the chapter on data science while encouraging UC and CSU to develop Algebra II courses for non-STEM majors. (partial credit for some right answers)

Community college enrollment

Enrollment at California’s community colleges has cratered since the onset of the pandemic in 2020, declining by 18%, to 1.8 million, the lowest level in 30 years.  Enrollment was down again in 2022, but many college presidents across the state say they hit bottom this fall and some even report a small increase in students. In 2023, that trend will continue as colleges continue to provide maximum flexibility by offering more online classes, an attractive option for many community college students who often balance classes with work or taking care of family members. They’re also counting on more high school students taking college courses to boost numbers.

It will take years for the college system to fully rebound from losing about 300,000 students, but a small uptick in enrollment in 2023 will show that the system is starting to recover.

Likelihood that of a community college enrollment increase of 5%:  

CSU pay raises

The 11,000 unionized teaching and graduate assistants on California State University’ 23 campuses watched intensely as their counterparts at the University of California won major wage concessions last month after a six-week strike. The question this spring, as they begin their negotiations is, will they be next?

Other employees at the nation’s largest university system will point to data saying they’re underpaid, too.  A study last year of non-faculty staff recommended improved compensation at a price of nearly $900 million over a decade. This spring, another study is expected to say that CSU faculty are underpaid relative to professors elsewhere.

The current state budget increased funding for CSU by 10%, to $5 billion. State revenues for 2023-24 are expected to decline. What will increase will be tension.

Likelihood that that Newsom and the Legislature will largely reject funding for pay increases that CSU Interim Chancellor Jolene Koester requests: 

Developments to watch

Tool for ejecting disrupters: With the enactment of Senate Bill 1100, school boards and other government bodies will have clearer authority, under revisions to the Brown Act, to remove people who disrupt, impede or make threats at public meetings. The new law responds to post-pandemic incivility. Sen. Dave Cortese, D-San Jose, the law’s author, pointed to Los Gatos, where QAnon followers disrupted the Town Council and attacked the mayor’s son with racist and anti-LGBT epithets over diversity, equity and inclusion policies. 

School boards will likely weigh carefully when speech crosses a line, and whether a forcible eviction could escalate tensions.

Community schools: This is the year for districts to lay out plans to transition hundreds of schools to community schools, bustling with health services, parent centers and multi-generational activities. The Legislature has funded $4 billion to get them going.

At issue is who makes decisions. Community schools work well when local teachers feel empowered. The teachers unions in West Contra Costa Unified and other districts want to include community school policies in their bargaining contracts, since they affect working conditions. But parents, too, are supposed to be active partners in community schools. It’s hard to imagine they will be if key actions are decided without them in the room.

Districts are fighting the move; talks have deadlocked in West Contra Costa. Stay tuned. The outcome could determine whether the initiative will truly be transformative or just another social service program.

EdSource higher education reporters Michael Burke and Ashley A. Smith contributed information for the predictions. 

Thanks for reading the column. One more toast to 2023!

California education issues to watch in 2023 — and predictions of what might happen

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California education issues to watch in 2023 — and predictions of what might happen
California education issues to watch in 2023 — and predictions of what might happen

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