Three recent and seemingly discrete events neatly frame California’s political and legal war over whether the state’s six million K-12 students are being adequately educated.

The conflict pits the state’s education establishment against a coalition of civil rights groups, education reformers and charter school advocates over the “achievement gap” that separates poor children, particularly Latinos and African-Americans, from more privileged white and Asian students.

The battle has been waged in the Legislature, before the state school board and local boards and quite often in the legal arena.

The establishment backs the Local Control Funding Formula, Gov. Jerry Brown’s approach, which pumps extra money into districts with large numbers of the underachieving students, but leaves spending largely in the hands of local officials.

The “Equity Coalition,” as it’s called, contends that without rigorous state accountability measures, the money may be squandered, rather than focused on high-needs kids, and no one will be able to tell whether the program is working.

In fact, there’s little evidence that it is working. The most recent set of state academic examinations showed scant overall progress and a continuing achievement gap.

The first of the events was the release by The Education-Trust-West of “The Majority Report,” contending that Latino youngsters, who are now a majority of public school students, are being poorly served.

Citing “inequities in access and opportunity,” the report declares that Latino kids “are more likely, for example, to leave high school without a diploma than white or Asian students (and) are less likely to have access to, and complete, the high school courses to be eligible for the state’s public universities (and) less likely to complete college once enrolled.”

“In a nationwide assessment of fourth grade reading,” the report continues, “California’s Latino students ranked fourth from the bottom; in eighth grade, they slid to next-to-last place.”

The second event occurred last Tuesday, when trustees of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, reached a compromise on renewing permits for 15 charter schools and new permits for three more with revised operating rules.

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It was a big test for the board’s slender majority that had been elected with support from charter school advocates, over the stiff opposition of L.A. Unified’s teacher union. Whether charter schools – public schools governed by parents and other local groups rather than the central authority – are an effective answer to the achievement gap is a major issue in California’s school wars.

Education reformers in Los Angeles, led by philanthropist Eli Broad, have pushed hard for more charters, fighting pitched battles with United Teachers of Los Angeles and other unions.

A day after charters won in L.A. Unified, the state Board of Education, dominated by the education establishment, reacted to the flat results of this year’s statewide “Smarter Balanced” achievement tests by reconfiguring how those results are graded. In effect, it reduced the number of schools that would be considered low-performing and raised those at the top.

Education officials described it as a technical adjustment, but the Equity Coalition sees it as another effort by the establishment to mask the state’s education crisis.

“All of this has come at the last minute, with very little notice to stakeholders and the public, a rushed closed-door meeting…and no time to run analyses on how these proposed changes affect student subgroup performance,” the coalition said in a letter.

While the specific flashpoints evolve, California’s school battle shows no signs of abating, and will heat up more next year when the warring factions back opposing candidates for state superintendent of instruction to succeed Tom Torlakson, the very embodiment of the establishment.

CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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