Revolutionary change in public education is rare.
Yet California's public school districts are today in the midst of a sea change, due largely to the efforts of Michael Kirst, the longest serving state Board of Education president and a longtime professor at Stanford University's Graduate School of Education.
Kirst, close to 80 years old, is now in his 52nd year of an uncommon career in education policy. Despite an intimidating CV that spans decades of education experience, from the White House to the California school board, the retired professor conveys neither self-importance nor pretensions. Mild-mannered and affable, Kirst seems at home in his comfortable Stanford office, reflecting on years past while sitting beneath a ceiling-high wall of books (some of which he's authored) and a black-and-white photograph of his younger self shaking hands with President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. On a recent summer afternoon, a single large window was thrown open to let in the breeze and the sounds of campus visitors.
Despite the late stage of his career, Kirst recently shepherded through a dramatic shift in how California school districts operate -- from government-driven, top-down budgeting to an emphasis on local autonomy and community involvement. He has been called the "key architect" of the state's new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), which since 2013 has required California school districts to develop three-year Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAP), which spell out how they will spend funding to improve education for all students. When Gov. Jerry Brown signed this bill into law on July 1, 2013, he called it "truly revolutionary." (VIDEO: Stanford's Michael Kirst talks about his career and education in California)
"We are bringing government closer to the people, to the classroom where real decisions are made, and directing the money where the need and challenge is greatest," he said. "This is a good day for California, it's a good day for school kids, and it's a good day for our future."
While the governor and many others have championed the new funding formula as a historic reform for California's encumbered public school system, it has also been criticized by some advocacy groups who worry more local flexibility and less accountability could hurt high-needs students. However, independently conducted studies of the local-control formula that have uncovered concerns about transparency and accountability are nonetheless optimistic about this next era in California education.
The Local Control Funding Formula set uniform funding rates based on districts' average daily student attendance across particular grades. It aims to help the districts that need the most aid by providing supplemental funding for certain student subgroups, such as English language learners, low-income students and foster youth, and concentration funding for districts whose English-learner and low-income populations exceed 55 percent of their enrollment. It eliminated approximately 75 percent of special state programs created to serve needs not met by general fund regular education programs, known as categorical programs. Now only 14 are left.
This was "almost an 180-degree turn" for a system entrenched in decades of categorical programs and incremental funding, Kirst said in an interview with the Weekly.
"You were stage managing the local," he said. "It was, as I call it, a historical accretion with no underlying rationale and no linkage to student needs. For every categorical program that helped low-income students, they passed one for the middle-income (students). It was very complex.
"That spurred the idea that we need to move back to some simple principles, pass these simple principles, unload the past and start with a new paradigm," he said.
Welcome to the new paradigm. Three years in, school districts across the state are adjusting to the new formula, which provides districts dollars based on the demographic profile of the students they serve. Despite representing a step back for the government, it also put in place "enhanced" accountability requirements, Kirst wrote with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson in an August 2013 letter to superintendents and charter school administrators about the impending changes. Among other criteria, the formula requires strong parent involvement -- a requirement that has spurred new levels of community participation in what was a previously opaque, inaccessible budgeting process, Kirst told the Weekly.
Asking districts to create multi-year budget plans that are updated each year with the help of the community has also led to improved long-term planning while also encouraging transparency, Kirst said.
Despite the fact that Palo Alto Unified is among 15 percent of school districts in the state, according to the California Legislative Analyst's Office, that do not receive additional revenue through the new funding formula due to its high per-pupil funding rates, the district is still required to follow the LCFF process. Palo Alto must hold public meetings to collect feedback and input as it annually updates its Local Control Accountability Plan, measuring itself against past years and setting goals for the future. The Palo Alto Board of Education approved this update at its last meeting of the school year on June 21.
It's hard to believe that Kirst, one of California's leading education policy analysts, fell into the field by happenstance.
Kirst, who grew up near Reading, Pennyslvania, was recruited by Dartmouth College as a high school football player. He attended the private New Hampshire college on a need-blind scholarship, graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics in 1961. Attracted to public service, he went on to Harvard University to obtain a master's in public administration in government and economics and then a doctorate, also at Harvard, in political economy and government.
Fresh out of college, he went to interview at what is now called the Office of Management and Budget at the White House. He was offered jobs in three areas: K-12 education, veterans affairs and water pollution. He chose K-12 education somewhat off the cuff, he said, and started as a budget examiner for the U.S. Bureau of the Budget.
Kirst rose through the ranks, serving as associate director of the President's Commission on White House Fellows and National Advisory Council on Education of Disadvantaged Children; then director of Program Planning and Evaluation for the Bureau of Elementary and Secondary Education in the U.S. Office of Education. He was also program analyst for the Title I program of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provides financial assistance to districts with high numbers of low-income students, at its inception in 1965.
At the time, he said, he had "zero interest" in teaching, but when Stanford knocked on his door with an offer to teach federal and state policy and school finance at the Graduate School of Education, he decided to temporarily relocate to California. The Pennsylvania senator he worked for in the Senate had just lost re-election, and Kirst planned to return to Washington, D.C. in four years.
But in 1974, Kirst met Gov. Jerry Brown, who was elected to office that year. The two collaborated on a school-finance plan central to Brown's campaign and ever since then have worked closely together on education policy. In an April interview with CALMatters, Brown described his colleague as "thoughtful, careful, thorough."
Kirst is knowledgeable yet humble, a person who either knows the answer to a question "or he knows that he doesn't," Brown told CALMatters.
"Kirst is very much a person of inquiry," Brown added. "That's probably why he's able to create such harmony in a completely unharmonious world called public education."
Kirst was first appointed to the state Board of Education in 1975. He again served, this time as president, from 1977 to 1981 and 2011 to 2013. Kirst is now in his fourth term, with about two years left before the end of Brown's administration.
Kirst's top priorities, both when he got his start on the state board and now, as a veteran member, have been to equalize funding and improve curriculum, he said.
Both initiatives start and end with local control. Long-term reform in California's schools does need to draw on strong state policy and government accountability, "but for every ratchet up of accountability, you need to ratchet up equally capacity building at the local level," Kirst reflected in a Stanford-created video on his career.
The state board has established eight priority areas that districts must address in their Local Control Accountability Plans. Districts must examine all eight in some way -- consider progress or collect feedback, for example -- but are not required to put money toward all of them.
1. Basic services -- providing all students access to fully credentialed teachers, standards-aligned instructional materials and well-maintained school facilities
2. Implementation of state academic standards, including the Common Core State Standards for English and math and Next Generation Science Standards
3. Course access -- ensuring all students have access to a broad course of study in all required subject areas
4. Improving student achievement, such as performance on statewide standardized tests, AP exams or percentage of English learners that become English proficient
5. Other indicators of student performance in required areas of study
6. Student engagement (attendance, drop-out and graduation rates)
7. Parental involvement/engagement
8. School climate
Districts must follow a template, adopted by the state school board, to set goals and measure progress around these categories. A work in progress, the board has approved guidelines for districts to follow as a means for interim evaluation. A more in-depth "rubric" that assesses LCAPs based on a range of state and local data, including graduation rates, standardized test scores and climate surveys, among others, is coming before the state board for the first time next week.
Kirst said that districts with the most successful Local Control Accountability Plans don't view it as a "compliance document."
"They look at it as a strategic way to allocate their resources to meet whatever strategic plan and things they were trying to do," he said. Many also restricted their priorities to those that are realistic to meet and fund, rather than spreading a thin layer of money to meet all eight, Kirst said.
Effective plans also require strong community involvement and an accessible, transparent budget process, he said.
"The theory of action is if you're going to decategorize the state control ... and say, 'We're going to lessen up on what the state directs,' then in a democracy you need more local community parental input into the budget," he added.
Critics, however, have said that the local-control plans lack transparency and allow for too much variation from district to district. In April, The Education Trust - West released a report following up on an initial study of 40 local-control plans across the state. The education-advocacy agency again found that "as in 2014-15, the 2015-16 LCAPs present an unclear, difficult-to-read view of how districts plan to spend their resources."
"Without a comprehensive understanding of a district's spending, communities are unable to make a clear and full assessment of whether supplemental/concentration dollars are indeed reaching high-need students," the 2016 report states.
Other reports and local stakeholders have said the plans themselves are unwieldly and lack clarity; in order to fulfill the state program's vision, they must be more user-friendly, streamlined and easy to understand, particularly for parents and community members.
The Education Trust - West report calls on policymakers, researchers, advocates and local community members to "scrutinize" data and demand accountability for the new plans.
Yet despite any challenges, the new locally focused approach "by and large remains the greatest move toward a more equitable school finance system in California in 40 years," the report states. "Any bold and significant change will inevitably encounter bumps in the road. What's important is that we course-correct when we hit those bumps: improvements in LCAP budget transparency will keep us moving down that road."
The funding revamp has also been framed as a means to close California's persistent and still-widening achievement gap. Kirst and Brown, however, don't want an experimental reform's success -- or failure -- to be determined strictly by that single measure.
An interim goal, Kirst said, is to get all California students college and career ready.
"Lawmakers and the governor were wise to replace an unwieldy and irrational education-funding system with one that puts decision-making closer to the classroom and allocates more funding for students with the greatest needs," Kirst wrote in a April 24 EdSource piece titled "Transformation goal is to narrow achievement gap, promote college and career success."
"Thus far, the state has invested $12.8 billion in the new funding formula, which represents 90 percent of the total target through the first three years of implementation. How local school boards, education officials, parents, teachers, students and stakeholders use these dollars to narrow the achievement gaps is a key factor in determining local progress."
The new Common Core standardized test, the Smarter Balanced Assessment, is uniquely designed to help better measure districts' progress toward that goal -- and hold them accountable, Kirst said.
The Smarter Balanced is the only computer-adaptive standardized test in the nation, Kirst said, meaning the software adjusts the difficulty of questions as a student moves through so that his or her results can better illustrate what skills he or she has mastered or needs to improve on. It's also a marked departure from the penciled-in scantrons of its predecessor, the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program, and even the current paper-and-pencil SAT test.
"I think it is the best assessment in America," Kirst said, which will, ideally, yield the best results to help move the state forward.
Another major shift that Kirst has overseen during his time on the state board is California's transition to the Common Core State Standards.
Adopted in California in 2010, the new K-12 standards were designed to help teachers bring the best and most current thinking about how to prepare students for college and career success into classroom instruction. For some school districts, the standards are more rigorous and represent a dramatic change; for others, like Palo Alto Unified, teachers say they have been teaching for years in the deeper style of the new standards, which espouse critical thinking, project-based learning and real-world application.
With the state's adoption of the Common Core (which covers English language arts and mathematics), the Next Generation Science Standards and forthcoming history/social science standards, "We will have overhauled the four main curriculum areas," Kirst said.
The relatively easy part -- state policy -- is done. What's harder, and is still very much a work in progress, even in districts like Palo Alto, is effective implementation on the ground in classrooms across California, Kirst said. Several years in, teachers are still reporting in surveys that they need more support teaching the new standards, particularly in math.
"That's what wakes me up at night," Kirst said. "How do I get at that?"
Despite these challenges, Kirst hopes he'll eventually leave California with a lasting educational legacy: fundamentally improved curriculum.
"What I've learned in the 52 years is if you're not improving and updating classroom instruction, then you're not doing all that much," he said. "It's nice to have and it's essential to have a good finance system, but the money can be used in lots of ways. We're really focused on improving instruction and updating it -- and that's the hardest thing to do."
These days, Kirst has shifted his professional focus to what he calls "K-16," or linking K-12 with higher education.
In 2004, he published "From High School to College: Improving Opportunities for Success in Postsecondary Education," which he called a "manifesto for overhauling many aspects of higher education." Several years later, he launched his College Puzzle blog, which he said was one of the first dedicated to the topic of college success and is today populated by a group of guest authors. This year, he published "Remaking College: The Changing Ecology of Higher Education, which looks at the "fate and future" of American higher education in light of budget cuts, rising tuition costs and ever-growing demand.
Kirst is also close to publishing yet another book that captures research he's conducted over the last several years, supported by a grant from the Gates Foundation, on the close to 400 post-secondary institutions in the Bay Area, from adult-education programs to barber schools. The research weighs their success and failures within a region with a rapidly growing economy and strong demand for higher education.
"As the president of one CSU said to me, 'This economy changes exponentially, and I struggle to change incrementally,'" Kirst said.
The new book, due out next year, argues that the Bay Area needs a concerted, regional approach to address an "acute" excess of demand over supply, Kirst said.
Kirst and the rest of the state board will tackle several high-level issues this year, from approving a new history/social studies framework for the state to responding to the U.S. Department of Education's new Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind. The board will also consider significant revisions for its Local Control Accountability Plan template to address schools' and parents' concerns.
And meanwhile, the full impact of Kirst's funding overhaul remains to be seen, and school districts, advocacy groups and policymakers across the state are watching closely.
The theory of local control -- "to bring the democracy bottom up rather than top down" -- was ambitious, will need time to take root and is still, admittedly, a "work in progress," Kirst said.
He pointed to independent studies that have found evidence of the state program's impact, even at this early stage. The Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) found in December 2015 that there is strong support for the new funding model -- out of hundreds of interviews conducted over two years with administrators, parents, community members, union leaders and board members, not a single person said they would go back to California's categorical model. At many districts, LCFF has allowed districts to focus more on supports and services for their neediest students, to improve their strategic planning, to increase community engagement and to close the gap between budget and classroom.
Yet "the learning curve for all remained steep and old habits die hard," PACE notes. With the "legacy of categorical funding ... deeply embedded in the DNA of many state, district and county officials," challenges of implementation threaten Kirst's vision of localized, simplified control.
"We're not proclaiming victory here," Kirst told the Weekly. "We're just saying it's better. Compared to what? Better compared to the old days."