My Wish List

When I think about developments I hope to see after venturing into retirement, improved relations between California’s private school leaders and the California Department of Education would follow close on the heels of world peace and a cure for cancer. It can happen. It should happen. And unlike world peace and a cure for cancer, it has happened.

Private school leaders and CDE were once true partners. And in the long sweep of history, it was so less than the blink-of-an-eye ago. Following passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (in late 2001), CDE created a Private School Working Group (PSWG) for the purpose of anticipating and solving implementation challenges arising from the law’s equitable services provisions. The PSWG was a small (never more than 10 persons) group whose members consisted of CDE staff, private school representatives, and federal programs staff drawn from selected LEAs (public school districts). The group met periodically at the CDE’s Sacramento headquarters to examine potentially ambiguous elements of statute, understand the various ways in which the meaning of the law could be understood, and reach consensus about the way in which the meaning of the law should be understood and applied.

If and when actual disagreements arose in the field, representatives from the involved LEAs were invited to meet with the PSWG. Those meetings were uniformly friendly and constructive. In no instance did the face-to-face discussions fail to resolve a disagreement. To the best of my recollection, nary a formal complaint was filed during the years of PSWG’s existence. The model worked so well that the U.S. Department of Education cited California’s PSWG as a best practice to be emulated by other states.

During the same period the PSWG was in operation, CDE, CAPSO, and the U.S. Department of Education partnered with one another to provide a series of workshops that brought LEA federal programs staff and private school administrators together for the purpose of gaining a common understanding of the provisions of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act relating to parentally-placed private school children with disabilities. The full-day program was presented by USDE Office of Non-Public Education staff member Dr. Pamela Allen, with assists from CDE and CAPSO personnel. That program, too, was a model of what true collaboration looks like.

Over the course of three decades, CDE was home to what was originally known as the State Superintendent’s Private School Advisory Committee, and later, the California Private School Advisory Committee (CPSAC). Committee members were appointed by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction after being carefully vetted to ensure broad representativeness.

The CPSAC functioned as a two-way conduit of information between the state and its K-12 private schools. If a new law took effect that required compliance by private schools, CPSAC members received a briefing from representatives of the state agency tasked with enforcement. When CDE rolled out a new curricular framework or set of instructional standards, CPSAC members received a robust overview provided by CDE project leaders. If and when CDE produced resources thought to be of interest to the state’s private schools, CPSAC members were informed, and invited to publicize their availability, as appropriate.

Sadly, the CPSAC is no more, the PSWG is long gone, and there are no jointly sponsored trainings.There have, however, been a succession of complaints involving various violations of federal education law. Back in the day we used to say: “Better to meet at customer service than in the complaint department.” I believe we were right.

It would be unfair to the CDE were I not to acknowledge areas in which service to, and collaboration with the state’s private school community is exemplary. The California Green Ribbon Schools Awards Program is a model of cooperation. Information and support received from CDE’s Emergency Services Team has been nothing short of outstanding. The Department’s management of the Private School Affidavit submission process has been expert, supportive, and friendly. When faced with the unprecedented challenges presented by the implementation of the EANS programs, CDE did its best to facilitate the delivery of assistance to the greatest number of eligible recipients with the least amount of administrative overhead. Many talented and hard-working CDE staff members furnish various forms of assistance to private school officials, day-in and day-out. For all of this, I am deeply appreciative.

That said, significant work remains to be done. In the past year CDE has organized what it has labeled a “State Private School Collaborative,” whose purpose – though not yet exactly defined – ostensibly aims to strengthen collaboration, communication, and transparency between the CDE and the state’s private school community. I say ostensibly because there is little that is truly collaborative about the body. (CDE doesn’t even bother to inquire of the availability of private school representatives when setting meeting dates and times.) Several fellow Collaborative members have expressed a sense of being managed rather than being engaged. No rationale has been provided for the composition of the body. Nearly a third of its 16 private school representatives were drawn from one administrative unit. No minutes of meetings are recorded, and suggestions as to how collaboration could be strengthened may or may not receive a response.

I have offered but one proposal – that CDE might apprise Collaborative members of pending legislation of common interest to the state’s public and private school communities. My suggestion was made in January, at a time when new bills were being introduced in the California Legislature. CDE’s response thus far: crickets. There may be ample good reason for CDE to reject my idea; I’d simply appreciate the courtesy and benefit of being so advised.

State-level consultation around the equitable services provisions of Title II, Part A and Title IV, Part A of the Every Student Succeeds Act leave me with the same uncomfortable sense of being managed. Consultation is intended to enable “a genuine opportunity for all parties to express their views.” For the past several years, this has hardly been the case. What passes for consultation has taken the form of a remote presentation delivered by CDE staff members during which they alone are permitted to speak. Participating private school officials are invited to submit written questions or comments, which may or may not be acknowledged during the course of the event. There is no real exchange of views.

Here, too, I have submitted questions that have yet to receive a satisfactory response. It would, for example, be helpful to receive detailed budget information so as to better enable private school officials to participate in the evaluation of federally funded, state-level equitable services programs. To date, no such information has been made available, leaving private school officials with no way of gauging cost-effectiveness.

CDE can and should do better. Imagine how easily the aforementioned IDEA workshop idea could be replicated using distance platforms such as Zoom and/or Microsoft Teams. Imagine a similar convening of state-level equitable services consultations in which a relatively small number of private school officials, each representing large and diverse sub-categories of schools are afforded the opportunity to engage in actual dialogue with CDE colleagues. Imagine distance platforms being used by CDE to brief interested private school leaders and stakeholders alongside their public school counterparts on newly developed curricular and instructional resources, the uses and misuses of AI applications, compliance with laws to which all California elementary and/or secondary schools are subject, etc.

Looking ahead, collaboration should be easier than ever, not only because distance platforms enable people to connect without leaving their respective offices or homes, but because AI will both simplify the organization of such gatherings and make them more productive. Be that as it may, it will take more than algorithms, large language models and bots to strengthen the relationship between the CDE and California’s K-12 private school community. It will require human will. In the memorable words of Graham Nash: “Hope the days that lie ahead bring us back to where they’ve led.”

Ron Reynolds

Note: The commentary and views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of the California Association of Private School Organizations, or its members.

 

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