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Walters: Age-old education battles are flaring up

California is simultaneously implementing two major — even historic — changes in its 6-million-student public school system, and all adults involved pledge that they have the best interests of those kids at heart.

They may be telling the truth about their motives.

Nevertheless, the adoption of Common Core academic standards and Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to give more money to districts with large numbers of poor and English learner students are venues in which old adversaries can renew their old power struggles.

Once again, parents, reformers, unions, administrators, school board members, etc., are sparring over such issues as academic standards, testing, teacher accountability and charter schools.

State schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson and teacher unions, for example, are pressing legislation (Assembly Bill 484) to abolish the current accountability system, based on testing, with the promise to create one aligned to Common Core standards. School reform groups such as EdVoice fear that the shift will undermine the legal tools used by parents to take control of failing schools and convert them to charters — a process that the unions have long opposed. Not coincidentally, the Legislature has passed and sent to Brown a bill (Assembly Bill 917) that would expand union influence over charter school creation.

Meanwhile, the same groups are sparring over the state Board of Education's implementation of the school finance overhaul — specifically over whether extra money will be tightly allocated and monitored, or given to districts with wide flexibility, thus putting more on the table for staff salaries.

Legislation (Senate Bill 344) that would have tightened the allocation of the funds was watered down due to opposition from school officials, who want maximum flexibility. A lengthy hearing before the state school board last week put the sharp differences on display, with civil rights groups demanding that the extra money be concentrated on kids it's meant to help.

Quietly, meanwhile, the Legislature sent Brown a “cleanup” to the school finance bill that requires local plans to spend the money to comply with union contracts, thus giving the unions more clout when the money is being distributed at the local level. Unions will have a year to negotiate contracts before the local plans are adopted. All in all, the unions seem to be winning these battles in the political trenches. Interestingly — and perhaps significantly — the taxing and voting public wants to go the other way.

A recent poll conducted for the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education found that by strong majorities, California voters want strong testing of students' academic performance and want test results to be used in teacher evaluations.

Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee.

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