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California Rising: An Interview With Mike Kirst

Mike Kirst has had a distinguished career as a leading education policy analyst.  But, he's not just an observer.  Kirst has long been in the thick of the action, starting with key leadership positions on the U.S. Senate Staff, in the Executive Office of the President of the United States and at the U.S. Department of Education.  Kirst was Jerry Brown's education advisor during both of his successful runs for Governor of California.  In both cases, the new Governor asked Kirst to stay on as the President of the California State Board of Education, the post in which Kirst now serves.

Marc Tucker: For a long time, many of us viewed California as a national basket case, with a hopelessly snarled decision structure for education.  That is clearly not true anymore.  What happened?

Michael Kirst: We had a strong policy window—a big confluence of strong political leadership, a unified Democratic Party, an economic recovery and good ideas—the timing was really good.

MT: But this a case of more than just good luck.  What's the rest of the story?  

MK: California for years had a fractured and fractious policymaking system.  There were four different education policymaking centers.  Each could checkmate the others.  It created confusion for education stakeholders because they didn't know who was in charge.  Governor Pete Wilson appointed a Secretary for Child Development and Education.  Then Governor Schwarzenegger added a Senior Advisor for Education.  The State Board of Education is appointed by the Governor. The State Superintendent is a statewide elected position.  So policy was just ping ponging around.  We knew we would not meet the needs of our students with that structure.

So the new Governor abolished the Secretary of Education's Office, cutting 21 positions in the executive office.  He selected and appointed one person to serve as both the executive director of the State Board of Education and as his education policy advisor.  He appointed strong staff to serve the State Board of Education.  He also decided to coordinate closely with State Superintendent Tom Torlakson, most of whose positions on education are close to his own.

MT: During the campaign, the Governor laid down some clear goals for California education policy.  What were they?

MK: First the Governor wanted a simpler, fairer system of school finance.  Under the convoluted and complex system then in place, local tax monies went to the state, which redistributed them, along with state funds, back to the localities in flat grants.  He thought that, if we were going to raise all students to high standards, it would be necessary to put more money behind hard-to-educate students than those who are easier to educate.  Second, as a graduate of a Jesuit high school, he had a low opinion of the tests California was using and wanted fewer, much better tests.  And, lastly, having been deeply involved in local schools as Mayor of Oakland, he thought that, given the enormous variation in the situations faced by California's communities, the state needed to give localities much more freedom to decide how the resources the state gave them were going to be used.  During his campaign, he wrote Arne Duncan a public letter about Race to the Top which said, "You need to proceed with more humility," meaning, for example, that there aren't just four ways to turn a school around.

MT: Can you describe how you put these ideas together in your school finance reform legislation?

MK: We started with a flat grant for all schools.  Then we added a supplemental grant which is twenty percent more than the base grant on a per-pupil basis for students who are low-income, English Language Learners or in the foster care system.  But, if 55 percent or more of the school population consists of such students, the school gets 50 percent more.  This last feature was inspired by the work of the sociologist William Julius Wilson on the effects of concentrated poverty.  We also included an adjustment for grade levels, under the theory that high school costs more than middle school.

The final piece was the Local Control and Accountability Plan.  We would not tell them how to spend the money.  But we would require them to involve parents and the larger community in figuring out how to spend it.  The results of this feature have already been quite remarkable.  In Los Angeles, for example, community input resulted in a very different plan than the one the Board first came up with; they ended up with a pupil-weighted formula for distributing the money directly to the schools.

MT: Where does accountability come in?

MK: We've done something I don't think anyone else has done.  We've tied accountability directly to the local budgeting process.  The legislation specifies a set of priorities, some having to do with inputs, like assignment of credentialed teachers, others with outputs, like students' scores on the Smarter Balanced tests.  Localities can add their own priorities.  The state will require the publication of detailed data on the state priorities in a uniform format, and the locality will have to publish data on its own priorities as well.  Localities will have to produce budgets that incorporate these priorities.  The state will set standards for performance and expectations for improvement in each of these areas.  The plans will be reviewed by intermediate education agencies using rubrics to be approved by the State Board.  The legislation also created a new state body, the "Collaborative for Educational Excellence", which will be governed by 5 appointees with experience in our public schools, 4 of whom have already been appointed.  That body is designed to support the accountability system, which will start with assistance to the schools that appear to need help and then move to increasing intervention, if needed.  As you can tell, a major transformation of our education policy is evolving, and after this first year of implementation, we are very excited about the prospects.  Stay tuned.

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