The long effort to create a system to track the progress of students from kindergarten through college and into the workplace received another setback when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger eliminated $6.8 million in state funds intended for the project. *
This is the second major setback for the project in recent months, placing its future in doubt. Earlier this year, as noted in previous blog posts, the U.S. Department of Education rejected California's application for nearly $20 million in funds for completion of the longitudinal tracking system, known as CALPADS (which stands for California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System), and tying it to graduation data from California's public colleges and universities.
Louis Freedberg/California WatchStars mark hopes of students in a California kindergarten class.
Schwarzenegger says that he wants the Legislature to find another entity other than the California Department of Education to oversee the project, then restore the funds. But in light of the state's ongoing budget shortages, the chances of funds being restored to the project seem remote at best.
The database is essential to assessing the effectiveness of hundreds of billions of dollars spent on education reform in California. It will also be essential to accurately link student test scores to individual teachers, a major issue in the current controversy over "value-added" methodology triggered by the Los Angeles Times series on teacher effectiveness.
Yet the CALPADS database has become something of a political football during the current election season.
Larry Aceves, one of the two candidates for superintendent of public instruction who will compete in the Nov. 2 election, has also called for eliminating funding for the project because of delays and complications in completing it, in part because of flawed performance by IBM, the main contractor responsible for developing the system. "Wasting taxpayers’ money on another flawed system that will not actually track our students is just one more example of Sacramento being out of touch with frontline education leaders," he said in a statement last month.
In a statement explaining why he used his "blue pencil" to eliminate the funding, Schwarzenegger said $150 million has already been spent on the system, and it is not yet fully operational. He said it should be taken away from the California Department of Education, which has been overseeing it, and placed in the hands of another yet unnamed agency.
But in a harsh rebuttal, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell called Schwarzenegger's $150 million figure "outlandish" and "flat-out wrong."
"The Governor’s own Office of the Chief Information Officer reports that California has spent $23 million on CALPADS between Fiscal Year 2005-2006 and the 2010-11 budget year," O'Connell said. "The Governor also fails to acknowledge that he has invested very few state dollars in the development of CALPADS, relying almost entirely on federal funds for this project and has now taken those away as well."
What's more, far from CALPADS being a failure, he said, "the system is working and important student-level information is being collected."
Like Aceves, Schwarzenegger blames California's unsuccessful bid for as much as $700 million in federal Race To the Top funds on the absence of a functioning longitudinal data system – even though there are numerous other reasons why California's application floundered, including the lack of support from the California Teachers Association or buy-in from many districts around the state.
In his line-item message, Schwarzenegger said Texas and Virginia had spent less than $20 million on their data-tracking systems. But setting up a tracking system for California's public school system – far bigger than any other state – is arguably more complex than in any other state. Virginia has 1.2 million public school students [PDF], and Texas has 4.7 million [PDF], compared to 6.2 million in California.
Keric Ashley, director of the Data Management Division of the California Department of Education, told me in an e-mail that "to interrupt the progress of the system at this particular time could be disastrous."
Over the next three months, school districts are scheduled to submit graduation and dropout data that will allow California to calculate a true four-year cohort rate for the first time ever. Budget language indicates that funding is only available through December 6 and then the legislature will need to take action to decide the future of the administration of CALPADS. If this veto interferes with our ability to collect and calculate these four-year rates, then someone will have to explain it to the federal government and to our public in general who have waited so long for these rates.
Marshall Smith, former undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education in the Clinton administration and until recently senior counselor to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, also criticized Schwarzenegger's decision to eliminate CALPADS funding, saying "together he and the Department of Finance have successfully held off the development of the state data system for his entire time in office."
*This sentence corrects an earlier version with updated numbers from the California Department of Education.