California Department of Education publishes list of state’s lowest-performing schools


41 Sacramento schools, 7 Yolo County schools included on the list.

After an initial controversial decision to withhold the list, the California Department of Education (CDE) published a list of its lowest-performing schools in December 2015.

Under the 2010 Open Enrollment Act, state law mandates that the CDE publish the list. The act states that parents with children in open enrollment schools have the choice to move students into higher performing schools when space is available.

The open enrollment schools list included seven Yolo County schools; among them is Marguerite Montgomery Elementary in Davis. A total of 41 Sacramento schools from 12 districts were also included on the list.

On March 11, 2015 the CDE released a statement on its website stating that the 2014-2015 open enrollment list would not be published due to a transition out of STAR testing, the measure previously used to judge school performance. Instead of using one statewide test to measure school performance, California will now use multiple tests based off of Common Core standards. As a result, the CDE did not have readily available data for the 2014-2015 school year.

“One of my top priorities is developing an accountability system that meets California’s needs by looking at a broad range of measures defining student and school success, rather than relying on just one test,” said Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of Public Instruction, in a news release on the CDE website. “This will give us a complete picture rather than a narrow view.”

Critics and education advocacy groups immediately reacted to the news that the open enrollment list would not be published. Among these critics was Republican Senator Bob Huff from the 29th District, which includes large portions of Los Angeles and Orange County. Huff has been a prominent education reform advocate, pushing for parent’s choice of schools and greater options for parent intervention in low-performing schools.

Senator Huff and school improvement group EdVoice threatened a lawsuit over the CDE’s decision to not publish open enrollment data for the 2014-2015 school year, citing that the list was necessary to allow students to move to higher performing schools. Days before the Jan. 1 deadline, the CDE published the list of California’s 1,000 most underperforming schools using the most recent available data from 2013.

“The law required the publication of the list regardless of data used. The legislature created this statue in 2010 saying that kids were entitled to be informed of their school’s low performance and transfer to a new district in a higher performing school if it had room,” said Bill Lucia, president of EdVoice with a masters in economics from UC Davis.

Lucia notes that the Open Enrollment Act gave students the ability to leave schools within their assigned residential districts, which was not a feasible option before the act was in place.

“Without the statue and the publication of the list, if a student tries to transfer, the presiding district can veto the request and view the child as an ATM machine for their property taxes,” Lucia said. “This law gives parents a choice and puts them in the driver’s seat.”

Student advocates feared that without publication of the list, students already living in high-poverty areas would be disproportionately harmed because California law does not guarantee school or district transfers. Students are guaranteed free public education, but school assignments are based off of residential district areas.

“Children don’t have a shelf life. If adults need to take years or decades to fix school problems we created, they can go ahead and do that, but children deserve a better education,” Lucia said. “More affluent parents can pay tuition and actually go to private schools or just move to a better zip code in a more affluent neighborhood with higher performing schools. Families in poverty in historically low-performing districts don’t have that kind of flexibility.”

In response to the criticism, the CDE noted the need for accurate and updated information.

“We faced the dilemma of producing a list based off a test that no longer exists. The state now files a lot more money into lower performing schools than it did in the past. The new funding may have pumped millions of dollars into these schools, which might not have been on the list if we had accurate data. We did not want to mislead parents; however, we had pressure to update the list,” said Peter Tira, public information officer for the CDE. “We complied with the law while putting in some caveats, noting that the data is three years old for parents to take into consideration before making any decisions.”

Katie Coyne, special education teacher at Prairie Elementary in Sacramento and UC Davis alumna, explains some of the challenges faced by schools in high poverty areas. Prairie Elementary was not on this year’s open enrollment list, but it is a Title 1 school, meaning that it receives additional funding from the federal government to improve education in low-income areas.

“Many factors play into the performance rankings of schools. My students struggle to get through the day sometimes because they can’t bring a snack. Some don’t have shoes or enough clothing. Others have parents who [have been] murdered — these are extreme situations. Needless to say, these kids act out and it affects their education,” Coyne said. “If we can’t meet kid’s basic needs, they can’t access critical thinking skills. We have to view educational success as holistic instead of just using these measurements.”

Local underperforming schools have taken steps to increase resources for students. In 2010, the Sacramento City Unified School District identified six schools as “priority schools”; the six schools had very high poverty rates amongst students, with 100 percent of students at the poverty threshold. Rosa Parks Middle School was added as a priority school in June 2011.

In these schools, teachers were given specialized training on learning and assessment strategies. Priority schools have an additional administrator and full-time curriculum specialist employed. Teachers in priority schools with specialized training have unique protection against seniority-based layoffs.

In the 2012-2013 data, three of Sacramento’s priority schools were labeled as open enrollment schools. The data published in December 2015 only identified one of the original priority schools as an open enrollment school, showing that Priority School measures had changed the school’s state rankings.

“In terms of improving school rankings, it comes down not just to funding, but also to smart spending. Test scores and having the choice for open enrollment matters, but just because a student is poor does not mean a student will get a bad education,” Coyne said. “Some of the most dedicated teachers want to help these families and invest more time in the students.”