In California, bad education news gets spun into good news. Test scores are getting better! In reality, years after a supposed "overhaul" of the state education system, just 42 percent of California's students scored proficient or above in English (up from 40 percent last year) and only 40 percent of kids are at grade level or above in math (up from 38 percent last year).
As he moves forward in his bid for control of the Los Angeles Unified School District, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa isn't getting overly excited about the improving, but still low, test results. With the support of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, key legislators and the City Council, Villaraigosa seems likely to take power of LAUSD soon. And if improving student achievement is his end-game, the latest test scores have given him a map to success: Mimic San Francisco Unified's plan.
San Francisco is one of a handful of public-school districts across the nation allowing education funding to follow students. Former Superintendent of Schools Arlene Ackerman introduced the city to the weighted student formula, which requires money to follow students to the schools they choose while guaranteeing that schools with harder-to-educate kids (low-income students, English learners, low achievers) get more funds.
Ackerman also introduced site-based budgeting, so that school communities - not the central office - determine how to spend their money.
Finally, she created a true open-enrollment student assignment system that gives parents the right to choose their children's schools. And parents are taking advantage of the system: More than 40 percent of the city's children now attend schools outside their neighborhoods.
With students having the freedom to move, the city's public schools now have incentives to differentiate themselves. Once cookie-cutter public schools now include Chinese, Spanish and Tagalog language immersion schools; college preparatory schools; performing-arts schools that collaborate with an urban ballet and symphony; schools specializing in math and technology; traditional neighborhood schools; and a year-round school based on multiple-intelligence theory.
Each San Francisco public school is unique. And the number of students, school hours, teaching styles and program choices vary from site to site.
San Francisco, with 116 schools, and 60,000 students, is now entering its sixth year of weighted student formula reforms, and its test scores now top all the state's urban districts.
In recently released standardized test results, nearly half of San Francisco Unified's students - 48 percent - scored at or above proficient in both reading and math. Those scores are far above the state average and the LAUSD's results of 31 percent at or above grade level in math and 30 percent in English.
In 2005, San Francisco's students posted the highest test scores of any urban district on the Academic Performance Index. The state has set 800 as excellent. San Francisco scored 745; San Jose 737; San Diego 728; Sacramento 700; Los Angeles 645; and Oakland 634. Even San Francisco's low-income students outscored L.A. and other urban districts, achieving 706 on the API.
While it may be difficult to replicate a school-finance method that works for a 60,000-student district and scale it up to L.A.'s 700,000 students, the dramatic achievement gains in San Francisco make it worth a try.
The first step is to hire a superintendent who buys into the weighted student formula concept. San Diego County just hired such a person in Randy Ward. And San Francisco's Ackerman has moved to Columbia Teachers College, but might be available for the right offer.
Next, appoint an independent board to determine the appropriate per-pupil funding amounts and create an open-enrollment attendance system that allows parents to choose schools and leave low-performing schools. The mayor should also consult other large cities that have implemented weighted student formula, including Edmonton, Seattle and Houston.
The mayor's determination to improve our schools is commendable, but simply changing administrators isn't enough. Incentives matter.
When public schools have the incentive to compete for students and the freedom to create distinct curricula, they've proven they can boost student achievement. If he's bold enough to combine mayoral control with the weighted student formula, Villaraigosa could unleash a revolution that dramatically changes L.A.'s public schools for the better.
Lisa Snell is director of education at the Reason Foundation. An archive of her work is available here. Reason's California-related research and commentary is here and education research and commentary is here.