Sweating the Small Stuff

Were it not for the fact that you’re reading these words, chances are you’d never have heard of AB 2999, a bill authored by Assemblymember Pilar Schiavo (D. – Chatsworth) that would require every California public school district, county office of education, and charter school to develop a homework policy in compliance with specified guidelines. You’d be blissfully unaware that among its provisions, AB 2999 would add the following line of text to proposed California Education Code Section 52000: “Each private school is encouraged to adopt a homework policy with guidelines consistent with this section.”

“But wait,” you’d say. “The text says ‘encouraged’, not ‘required’. There’s nothing to enforce…no penalties to fear. It’s just a suggestion. No sweat off my back!”

If I were a private school administrator, that’s how I’d react. I wouldn’t lose a minute’s sleep over AB 2999. It wouldn’t even earn an honorable mention on my daily list of things to worry about. I’d assign it the status of a big fat nothing burger.

But I’m not a private school administrator, and I couldn’t ignore this bill. I picked up the phone, called Assemblymember Schiavo’s Sacramento office, introduced myself, and asked to speak with the staff member assigned to AB 2999. A short time later I was on the line with Ms. Schiavo’s Legislative Aide, Carlos Gutierrez.

“Please consider this a friendly call,” I told the friendly sounding Mr. Gutierrez, adding, “we have no intention of opposing your bill.” (Those words are gold to legislators’ staff. Their mere utterance removes the veneer of tension from a telephone conversation like an air freshener removes the scent of…well, you get the idea.)

“I would, however, like to bring a mild concern to your attention,” I continued. “It strikes me as inconsistent that the California Education Code should contain a provision encouraging private schools to adopt a homework policy consistent with certain state-established guidelines. After all, the Education Code contains no such exhortation with respect to the adoption of curricular frameworks and/or instructional standards, policies governing the hiring and/or termination of teachers, or the assessment of students’ academic progress. Why homework?”

Mr. Gutierrez responded like a seasoned pro, at once validating my expression of concern and putting a positive spin on his boss’ intentions. He let me know that he was actually anticipating such a call, thanked me for reaching out, and promised to relay my feedback to Assemblymember Schiavo. In exchange, I let him know how appreciative I was of his understanding and responsiveness.

Before ending the call I said, “I want to assure you, once again, that CAPSO has no intention of opposing the bill. I do, however, feel an obligation to those whose interests I represent to bring the concern I’ve shared with you to appropriate Assembly Education Committee staff.” To which Mr. Gutierrez was kind enough to let me know that the bill had been assigned to that committee’s Chief Consultant, Tanya Lieberman.

No sooner did I get off the phone than I began composing an email to the seasoned veteran, Ms. Lieberman, with a CC to Mr. Gutierrez. Here’s the crux of what I wrote:

“While I appreciate the author’s good intentions and recognize that the language is voluntary, the provision is largely inconsistent with the corpus of California education law. The state generally desists from codifying exhortatory invitations. To the best of my knowledge, private schools aren’t encouraged to adopt policies consistent with state guidelines regarding content standards, instructional practices, the assessment of academic achievement, personnel practices, or other areas of practice.

“As I shared with Carlos Gutierrez (who was most gracious and professional in absorbing my expression of concern during the course of a pleasant telephone conversation earlier this afternoon), any private school leader likely to take Assemblymember Schiavo’s exhortation to heart is also likely to be employed at a school that has already invested considerable thought in establishing policy governing the assignment of homework.

“Many private school leaders regard the state content standards, curricular frameworks, and other guidelines as valuable resources, and I personally encourage the cultivation of familiarity with these important documents. I believe we actually lose something if and when such voluntary enthusiasm is superseded by a legal exhortation. Sometimes less is more.”

In all likelihood, that will be where it ends. Which is fine by me. The author may decide to write private schools out of the bill, but I won’t be disappointed if that doesn’t happen. Such an amendment could actually entail greater risk than leaving the text as is, by inviting unnecessary attention. Then again, it gives the appearance of power. Take your pick!

Either way, what counts the most is that the author of the bill, her staff member, and the Assembly Education Committee know we’re paying attention, know that California’s private schools have representation that’s looking out for their backs, know that we’re reasonable, and know that we’re vigilant.

California private school leaders and stakeholders should be well aware that their schools function in a political environment that is remarkably free of regulation. The state imposes virtually no requirements regarding what must be taught, who can teach it, how it must be taught, and/or how outcomes must be assessed. Each private school is at liberty to pursue its unique vision and mission in the manner of its choosing.

The flip side of the coin is that there’s ample opportunity for state lawmakers to meddle, muddle, constrain and curtail, impinge and impose. That they desist from so doing is no accident. They think twice because we sweat the small stuff.

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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