What Has Gone Wrong at the CDE?

Yes, that’s a loaded title, and lest it overly prejudice an open-minded reading of what follows, let me begin by offering credit where credit is due, and recognizing the good.  The California Department of Education does not lack for outstanding talent, leadership, and dedication. CDE staff are hard working public servants, seasoned educators and visionaries, who have created, and continue to create a plethora of outstanding resources that are of tremendous value – and not only to public schools.  Imagine the planning and execution required to produce the Next Generation Science Standards, or for that matter, any of the curricular frameworks and subject matter standards that are widely, and rightfully regarded as national models.

In the aftermath of this winter’s devastating wildfires, the CDE was swift and decisive in reaching out to the state’s private school community to help ensure continuity of education, and promote the inclusion of private schools and private school families impacted by the fires, in federal disaster relief programs.

The California Green Ribbon Schools recognition program is a shining model of how the CDE plays a leadership role in promoting and recognizing education for environmental sustainability across the public and private education sectors.  Indeed, it was the CDE that initiated a state-level recognition program that enables public and private schools to learn from and celebrate each other’s success.  CAPSO is privileged to administer the private school portion of the program, in partnership with the CDE, and it has become a personal highlight of my year to have the opportunity to hand out certificates of recognition, alongside State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, at the annual California GRS awards ceremony.

This past fall, the CDE was wonderfully responsive in providing statewide public school teacher salary information that is tremendously useful in helping private schools across the state determine whether their teachers meet the requirements established in California Labor Code Section 515.8 for exempt employees.  (The data furnished by the CDE enabled us to create an easy-to-use table that can be viewed here.)

If you’ve ever phoned anyone at the CDE seeking help, whether it involved assistance with filing the private school affidavit, obtaining information about school vaccination requirements, finding school nutrition guidelines, or accessing any of a myriad of excellent educational resources, chances are excellent that you were helped by a friendly and knowledgeable staff member who was pleased that someone from a private school was on the other end of the line.

So let me be clear: there is a great deal that is right at the CDE.  And that being so, it is particularly disappointing to note a pronounced deterioration in service, and an apparent shift in disposition with respect to the monitoring and enforcement of federal education laws affecting private school students and educators at the state level. Something is amiss, and it requires identification and attention.

Item:  In March, 2016, the State Board of Education appointed an individual who was completely unknown to the leadership of the state’s private school community, to serve as the sole representative of private school children on the California Practitioners Advisory Committee.  Among other important functions, the CPAG serves as the state’s Title I Committee of Practitioners, a federally mandated body that oversees the implementation of the largest of all federal education programs.  At a March 29, 2016 meeting with representatives of CAPSO, senior CDE staff promised to investigate the matter and provide information regarding the appointee’s qualifications.  That never happened.  Nor did an inquiry to the State Board of Education produce any information about the individual’s suitability to represent the state’s private school community.  The “unknown” representative ended up serving the entirety of a two-year term.

Item:  In February, 2017, the State Board of Education appointed CDE staff member Sylvia Hanna to serve as California’s ESSA Ombudsman, a new position mandated by the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  According to the statute, the purpose of the ombudsman is to “monitor and enforce” the relevant portions of ESSA “…to help ensure…equity for…private school children, teachers, and other educational personnel.”  The announcement of Ms. Hanna’s appointment as California’s ESSA ombudsman was made public through the posting of an informational memo that was buried on the CDE web site.  No CDE news release accompanied the appointment, no “heads up” was offered by any CDE staff member to CAPSO, and no ensuing email, or letter of introduction was provided to private school administrators.

Item:  California was among the first states to establish a Private School Working Group (PSWG) consisting of CDE staff, representatives of public school districts, and private school officials, for the purpose of anticipating and solving issues related to the implementation of federal education laws.  California’s PSWG was formed shortly after the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act, and worked as an effective, problem-solving structure that virtually eliminated the submission of formal complaints from private school officials.  Now, despite repeated requests from private school officials, the CDE has not seen fit to convene the PSWG.  As a consequence, two CAPSO member-organizations have recently submitted formal complaints over an issue related to the generation of funds for ESSA Title I services.

Item:  Last year, $9.2 million of federal Title II, Part A “state-level activity” funds were allocated to implement the California Educator Development Program (CalEd). Funding for the competitive grants program flowed from the federal government to the CDE, and from there, through an inter-agency contract, to the Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC), which is responsible for administering the program, in concert with the Center for Teacher Careers at the Tulare County Office of Education.  No state agency offered consultation designed to ensure that the CalED program would be responsive to the particular needs of private school educators.  CDE contacts were repeatedly asked by private school officials to serve as a bridge to administrators of the program at the CTC, or simply to identify such persons so that such consultation could be requested.  The minutes of the November 1, 2017 meeting of the California Private School Advisory Committee (CPSAC) show that the CDE “had nothing new to report” although (as CAPSO later learned) a Request for Proposals had been sent out in September – minus any mention of the private school equitability requirements.  In January, 2018, recipients of the CalEd grants were announced.  It is unclear whether, or how the state’s ESSA Ombudsman took any action to “monitor and enforce” the private school equitability provisions to which the funding for the CalEd program is subject.

Item: The CDE appears to be giving short shrift to federal non-regulatory guidance.  Private school officials have been repeatedly advised by the ESSA Ombudsman that federal guidance “is non-binding and does not create or impose new legal requirements.”  That, of course, is true, and CAPSO has never claimed otherwise.  However, the CDE has always treated federal guidance as if it were binding, and there is ample good cause for it to do so.  If a formal complaint should ultimately make its way to the U.S. Department of Education, it is almost certain to be resolved in a manner that comports with existing federal guidance.  Downplaying the weight of guidance only serves to invite confusion and conflict.

Item:  The CDE proposes to eliminate the Private School Advisory Committee (CPSAC) in favor of a new model for the conduct of state-level consultation with private school officials that will consist of four regional meetings followed by webinars.  In the proposals words: “All qualified non-profit private school teachers, administrators, and leaders will be invited to attend and serve as the consultative body.”  Thus, in the eyes of the CDE, “appropriate” private school officials (for purposes of state-level consultation) will consist of whomsoever shows up at the regional meetings. (I wonder whether any private school administrator reading these words was consulted by the authors of the CDE proposal to determine their interest in either leaving campus for a day in order to participate in such a meeting, or in sending teachers to participate.)

The truth is that if a private school participates in federal programs, its administrators have already made the needs of students and educators know to relevant public school district staff, either directly, or through a private school official who represents a larger group of schools.  Strangely, although the CDE proposal claims it is attempting to better align state-level consultation with the Local Control Funding Formula, it makes no mention of obtaining information that already exists from public school district federal program staff, with whom local level private school leaders regularly consult.

Item:  The aforementioned proposal suggests that the new model will, “provide private school educators greater access to CDE staff, and vice versa.”   The reality is that CDE staff responsible for implementing state-level activities consultation with private school officials change with alarming regularity. This past year, alone, has seen the departure of Professional Learning Support Division Director Brent Malicote and the CDE’s main private school liaison, Matthew Parsons, while Aileen Allison-Zarea, who staffed the CPSAC for the CDE, has been reassigned.  Moreover, a year from now, a new State Superintendent of Public Instruction will have been ensconced at the CDE, changes to senior staff will have been made, and the Department will almost certainly be in the midst of a major reorganization.  Why the CDE is intent on transitioning to any new model at this time baffles me.

When asked why experimentation with regional meetings necessitated the dissolution of the CPSAC, the only answer provided by CDE staff members was, “it’s time to try something new.”  When last we heard the same line from the CDE, it resulted in the cancellation of professional development programs to which private schools across the state had already committed, and an ensuing termination of service that spanned more than a full calendar year, resulting in massive damage to the brand established by the CPSAC.

There is need for the CDE to maintain some identifiable body of broadly representative private school officials, not only for purposes of federal programs consultation at the state level, but as a reliable, two-way conduit of information to and from California’s private school community. Replacing the CPSAC with “whoever shows up” is more than a bad idea; it’s evidence of a lack of commitment to relationship building.  Good things happen through partnership, as is attested in the opening paragraphs of this column.  We wish to strengthen our partnership with the CDE, which is why we lament the deterioration of what was once a very healthy relationship with respect to the understanding and enforcement of federal education law.  Something needs to change, but it’s not the dissolution of the CPSAC.

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