In this brief, we use data from the 2021 PACE/USC Rossier Poll to report on California voters’ attitudes towards and engagement with local school district governance. Generally, our findings show relatively high support for school boards among California voters, although voters were less satisfied with school board performance in the context of the pandemic.
Growing inequities and lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic together with billions of dollars in new funding present an opportunity to make substantial changes to K–12 education to better serve all students in California. In May 2021, PACE and USC Rossier School of Education fielded our annual poll of California voters, which sought to gain clarity about voters’ priorities on public education issues during this period in which Californians are beginning to look towards a postpandemic future. The following are 10 key findings from the poll.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all students; however, its impact has been particularly devastating for students of color, students from low-income families, English learners, and other marginalized children and youth. As transmission rates decline and vaccination rates increase in California, many are eager to return to normalcy, but we must all recognize that even the prepandemic normal was not working for all students. The 2021–22 school year, therefore, constitutes a critical opportunity for schools to offer students, families, and educators a restorative restart.
California’s school system is under tremendous long-run fiscal pressure; allocating resources efficiently is therefore paramount. Efficient allocation means more money spent on the most effective policies and interventions; less waste; and ultimately better outcomes for students. Economic analysis—making sure districts and schools are spending their budgets wisely—is the method used to identify effectiveness and efficiency.
This brief was developed by California-based family and student engagement organizations, associations representing educators and system leaders, research institutes, and civil rights and equity groups. The recommendations arise from the evidence that has collectively emerged from focus groups with educators, parents, and students; polls and surveys of stakeholders; a deep review of the literature; and original research conducted on COVID-19’s impact on schools and students.
In March 2020, school districts across California closed their doors, rapidly adapting operations and instruction in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Efforts to understand the immediate impact of the unprecedented closure of schools prompted grave concerns about meeting students’ needs, particularly for the most vulnerable. In fact, recent research indicates that learning loss related to school closures in the spring and fall of 2020 was disproportionately experienced by younger students, low-income students, and English learners.
Communities in California and around the country are implementing learning hubs to provide in-person education supports to students who are distance learning. In this brief, we explore a prevalent learning hub model and raise considerations for local policymakers, schools, and expanded learning partners. We include guidance for the design and operations of learning hubs, and identify the policy levers that support the model.
Strong partnerships between schools and expanded learning programs lay the foundation for building stronger, more equitable support systems for children and their families. Building on prior investments in the expanded learning system, California’s school reopening guidance encouraged intentional coordination across schools and expanded learning providers to best meet the needs of students during this unprecedented time.
California districts were forced to shift to distance learning models in the spring of 2020 and the transition to distance learning for students in the early grades—transitional kindergarten through third grade (TK–3)—has proved difficult for students, parents, and teachers alike. As distance learning persists, administrators and teachers can continue to adapt their practices to meet the needs of students and families.
California is the fifth largest economy in the world and the wealthiest state in the nation. The Golden State is home to countless tech giants, an enormous entertainment industry, major agricultural regions, and many other successful industries. California households earn a median income of $71,000 per year, more than $10,000 above the national average. However, California school funding—even before COVID-19—was insufficient to meet educational goals and address the needs of students, particularly given the state’s high cost of living. How can that be true?
California and the rest of the country are enduring a pandemic-induced economic recession, and school and district leaders are bracing for the fallout. Funding for California schools had improved rapidly between 2013 and 2019, with districts spending roughly $13,100 per pupil in 2018–19 as compared with $9,680 only 6 years earlier. However, that level of funding still fell short of what would have been adequate given California’s goals as a state, the student population it serves, and its cost of living.
The educators of Ayer Elementary in Fresno Unified School District began their continuous improvement journey in 2016. The stability of their underlying organizational conditions to engage in improvement work—a shared purpose, mutual trust, structures and resources that foster collaborative work, and preparation and mobilization of improvement capabilities—was put to the test as their focus pivoted in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Parental engagement has been shown to be a key lever for improving outcomes for all students. It can positively influence grades, test scores, and graduation rates for all students. Increased engagement is also shown to improve the outcomes of underserved student populations, positively impacting low-income, Black, and Latinx students in both primary and secondary settings. Additionally, parental engagement has been found to be a critical support in blended and distance learning environments—a need that has intensified with the shift to distance learning in response to COVID-19.
How can schools provide high-quality distance and blended learning during the pandemic? This brief includes a mix of rigorous evidence from extant studies, data from interviews with practitioners who described their learnings from informal experimentation during the spring of 2020, and expert researchers who thought about how to apply research to the current context.
Breaking Down the Issues
Community school strategies have emerged as a promising approach to mitigate the social and learning impacts of COVID-19. This brief draws on how the crisis-motivated responses of educators and school leaders might serve as integral investments in successful and sustainable community schools. Schools and districts interested in such an approach need to examine and reform the underlying classroom, school, and district behaviors and systems that get in the way of student-centered collaboration, partnership, and teaching.
Though the delivery of instruction in the 2020–21 school year will be altered to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, a long-standing research base on high-quality instruction can inform decisions about students’ learning and engagement. The following ten recommendations distill the key findings from the PACE report Supporting Learning in the COVID-19 Context, which offers a framework for educators and district leaders to use in their preparation to provide quality instruction through distance and blended models.
On July 17th, 2020, Governor Newsom announced that all K–12 schools in California counties with rising COVID-19 infections would be required to teach remotely. Without a strong focus on improving the quality of remote education at scale, students could lose up to a year’s worth of learning, and as many as 1.1 million students could fail to graduate high school. That academic impact would be felt most acutely by low-income, Black, and Latinx students. California’s leaders must act now to prioritize equity and ensure quality across all of the state’s districts.
COVID-19 has disrupted California’s education system in fundamental ways. Districts across the state are quickly creating strategies to serve all students, and many are designing their response around the needs of their most vulnerable students. This brief highlights the response of Mother Lode Union School District (MLUSD) to the COVID-19 pandemic, in which district staff and teachers were able to collaborate—despite the unprecedented crisis—to meet student needs.
Governor Newsom has discussed staggered or multi-track calendars as an option for going back to school in fall 2020. A review of research on multi-track calendars shows that over time there are slight negative effects on learning, but this research was done during a period where the alternative was a traditional calendar. In the current situation, which would otherwise have students staying home entirely, a staggered calendar would have clear learning benefits and would help both parents and teachers get back to work.
COVID-19 presents an array of challenges for school districts. In this brief, we share some promising practices learned from California’s Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD), particularly in the areas of family engagement and instructional access for English learners.
We use data from the 2020 PACE/USC Rossier annual voter poll to report on California voters’ attitudes towards educational equity policy initiatives, specifically: (a) increasing the number of public school teachers of color in California and (b) requiring all high school students in California to complete an ethnic studies course. A majority of voters supported these initiatives. Respondents showed higher levels of support for increasing the number of teachers of color when informed about the positive academic impact this would likely have for students of color.
More than 725,000 of California’s K-12 students qualified for special education services in 2018-19, but they entered a system that is often ill-equipped to serve them. This brief summarizes the findings from the PACE Policy Research Panel on Special Education: Organizing Schools to Serve Students with Disabilities in California. We find opportunities for improvement in early screening, identification, and intervention; transitions into and out of special education services; educator preparation and ongoing support; and availability of mental and physical health services.
California continues to fall below national averages in identifying and serving infants, toddlers, and preschoolers with developmental disabilities. The transition between infant/toddler services, administered by the Department of Developmental Services, and preschool services for 3- to 5-year-olds, administered by the Department of Education, is fraught with several factors that hinder progress.
Under California’s System of Support, differentiated assistance (DA) provides supports to eligible districts to boost student group performance levels. This brief describes the districts that were eligible for DA in 2019 based on the performance levels of their students with disabilities (SWD). It also analyzes how SWD performance on State Priority Areas (SPAs) and indicators factored into districts’ eligibility for DA. Findings show that, among the 333 districts identified for DA, eligibility was driven, in part, by SWD performance for over half of those districts.
California faces challenges in its efforts to improve educational outcomes for students with disabilities (SWDs), especially regarding SWDs’ participation in general education originally mandated by PL 94-142. Research evidence consistently indicates that inclusion of SWDs in general education classrooms, to the extent possible, has positive benefits to both SWDs and general education students. This report describes strategies used in three states that appear to help increase the inclusion rates for SWDs.