Sue Burr has seen and done a lot in 40-plus years of playing key roles in California education – advising legislators and governors, administering the finances of a large school district, running the state county superintendents’ organization and, for the past two years, serving as executive director of the State Board of Education.
Burr retired at the end of last year, only to be nominated two weeks later by Gov. Jerry Brown to return to the State Board of Education – this time as a member setting policy, not as an administrator carrying it out.
Kathy Baron and I caught up with her in Sacramento and asked her to reflect back on her years in education and to look forward to the challenges ahead for her as a member of the State Board. She discussed her views on Gov. Brown’s school finance reform, which she backs, the shift of control over decision making from Sacramento to local districts, her desire to measure schools beyond standardized tests, and charter schools. She played a historical role for the latter by helping to write the state’s charter school law 20 years ago.
Before being named executive director of the State Board and assuming a role as policy adviser to Gov. Brown, Burr served as executive director of the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, chief business official for Elk Grove Unified School District and as undersecretary and interim Secretary of Education for former Gov. Gray Davis. Before that, she served as the principal consultant to the Senate Education Committee and as the education consultant to the Senate Appropriations Committee. She also worked for the Legislative Analyst’s Office.
EdSource: You’ve seen swings in the pendulum, and it seems the pendulum is swinging again from state control to local control. Will we get the right balance this time?
Sue Burr (Photo by John Fensterwald.)Burr: I hope we’ll get the right balance. Going back to the early ‘80s, with the implementation of Proposition 13, the state had to really step in and essentially fully fund public schools, because local districts’ ability to use property taxes was greatly diminished. At that time, the state said, “We have to figure out how our money is being spent. We have a fiduciary responsibility. We have to basically tell them what to do with our money.”
And that has been semi-successful, and I think we’re now at a time again to say, “Well, we [need] some additional state resources.” We have a thousand different school districts in California ranging in size from five kids to the 600,000 kids in Los Angeles Unified. The state can’t possibly know what every district should do every single day.
So, as the governor says, we need to have a little humility when we think about how we’re going to manage schools, and I think it’s the state’s role to require broad accountability outputs, but to not tell districts what to do and to give local elected school boards the authority to spend their money and be held accountable for their academic outcomes and hopefully we’ll get the balance right this time.
EdSource: How do we hold them accountable?
Burr: There’s a variety of ways. We require that they do an annual financial budget and, in the governor’s budget, with the new Local Control Funding Formula, we also say, “You have to have the district academic achievement plan that’s tied directly to that annual budget.” And then districts will be audited locally to determine whether or not they’ve met those outcomes.
They’ll have an annual fiscal audit that will be done by an independent CPA, and the audit will be done in accordance with audit guidelines that are established at the state level, approved by the controller, Department of Finance, etc.
EdSource: Do you think we should have local control over taxation as long as we have local control?
Burr: I definitely think it’s worth looking at. A proposal already has been introduced in the Legislature to lower the voting threshold for parcel taxes. I think it’s worthy of consideration. I think we have to proceed cautiously because the taxpayers just gave us a lot of additional authority in Proposition 30. And, again, proceeding with some level of humility and – and responsibility over the revenues that the state has been provided – we have to think carefully about what additional local ability districts need for raising taxes.
EdSource: How would you characterize the state of California’s schools after four decades? Are they as bad as the primary national test, NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) would indicate? Or are they as good as our California Standards Test results have shown over the past several years? And what indicators should we be looking at beyond test scores?
Burr: They’re probably somewhere in between, but I lean toward, “They’re as good as the California Standards Tests.”
It’s remarkable, really, how our school districts have responded since the development of the Academic Performance Index back in the ‘90s. They’ve really risen to the occasion and if you look at the achievement during that period of time, really, across all student groups, it has been remarkable.
There’s still more to do, and I worry a little bit that, because of our emphasis on standardized testing, we have narrowed the curriculum, and we need to kind of step back and say, “We value all aspects of the curriculum.” And we certainly need to value creativity and problem-solving. That’s what employers are telling us all the time.
There are lots of other indicators to look at accountability at the State Board level. We have certainly talked about the School Accountability Report Card, which has 40-some-odd indicators, including graduation rates, completion of career technical-education courses, and school climate, which parents care a great deal about.
EdSource: What do we really need to do to address the achievement gap between low- and high-income families and students? And is that the big discrepancy in the achievement gap, or is there more to it?
Burr: The big discrepancy is primarily economic; but, beyond that, it’s students whose first language is not English. What the governor is obviously trying to do is provide additional funding. That’s what the Local Control Funding Formula attempts to do – to say, “Those students really do have additional needs, and we need to provide additional resources.” That’s a start.
EdSource: What about things like wraparound services and really looking at the whole child? Is there money in the Local Control Funding Formula for that?
Burr: There’s certainly a flexibility there. Remember, local school districts operate under what’s known as a “permissive education code,” so they can provide whatever services they think are important. I honestly don’t know that there’s a level of resources that would support that kind of an effort; districts could certainly partner with their local counties to provide services.
We tried that several years ago – speaking of “pendulum swings!” – the Healthy Start program, where we tried to provide integrated services. That was generally successful. But it does require a level of cooperation among local agencies that sometimes is hard to achieve.
EdSource: There’s the issue of adequate funding for education. Will we ever get to that level? And how would you define “adequacy”?
Burr: I don’t know the answer to that question. (State Board of Education President) Mike Kirst and I have this conversation all the time. Going back to the “Getting Down to Facts” study, the level of adequacy had an enormous range. Now we have Common Core standards and, to the best of my knowledge, nobody has actually done that calculation to try to figure out, “What does it take to educate a student to the standards you expect them to achieve?”
EdSource: Would it be too simplistic to say, “Okay. Well, it is hard to define. So let’s go to the U.S. average as a target and say we’ll be there in X number of years.”
Burr: It’s one approach. You can also say, if you talk to some of the education stakeholder groups, we should be in the top 10. Don’t average us too low. But again, I think, from a public perspective and a public-official perspective, we can only responsibly provide what we have available and so I think setting a target that we know we can’t get to because those resources aren’t there is irresponsible.
Disconnect between K-12 and higher education
EdSource: You’ve worked in higher education and K-12 and one thing that changed very much is the need for remediation once students get to higher education. Why is that so difficult to deal with and – and what should be done to improve the transition from K-12 to college?
Burr: It’s been difficult because the expectations have been different at the higher-education level than at K-12. We found this when our first state standards were put in place, that on the K-12 side, we were merrily going along, saying, “Of course these standards make sense.”
Then you go and talk to the higher-ed faculty and they say, “Oh, absolutely not. You need to have Algebra II and a much higher standard.” In higher education, faculty are allowed to set their own standards individually. So it’s been a little bit of a moving target, and a tough one to achieve. We became closer more recently, when we implemented the Early Assessment Program (a readiness test designed by CSU and administered to high school juniors). It was a good marker for students in grade 11, because then they knew what they needed to do in grade 12 to get ready.
I’m hopeful we’ll continue that with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. That’s the idea that, when they’re tested in grade 11, they will know, are they ready for college? Are they ready for careers? And, if not, there will be a clear path about what they need to do to get here.
EdSource: Looking back over several decades of involvement in public education, what would you say is your biggest or one of your biggest accomplishments?
Burr: One thing is helping Sen. Gary Hart implement the Charter Schools Act in 1992. I was on his staff at the Senate Education Committee and was instrumental in helping craft the Act. That’s provided a lot of innovation to our school systems and school choice for parents so that they have lots of different options. I certainly hoped that the innovations that have occurred in the charter system would transfer and be more embedded in our non-charter system, because that was the major intent.
I was also involved in creating the testing system that was called the California Learning Assessment System – CLAS – which had a kind of crash-and-burn, unfortunately. But I think it laid the premise for the things we’re thinking about with Smarter Balanced (Assessment Consortium), which are much more robust test questions, open-ended items, things that will require our students to think more carefully and deeply, be able to write better, to be better problem-solvers.
EdSource: Following up on charters, where have they gone the way you’d hoped and where have they maybe veered off course a little bit?
Burr: I’m very proud of the various options that are available. For example, some of the Rocketship Schools have some very innovative teaching techniques. We have many examples of robust visual and performing arts academies that have grown out of the charter system. There is a charter school affiliated with the California Conservation Corps. Those kinds of examples represent the spectrum of things that can happen under charter schools.
Right after the charter law was enacted, what was surprising to both Sen. Hart and me was the growth of home-schooling. It just wasn’t anything that was really contemplated when we passed the law. There were some financial improprieties that occurred early on, where public funds were not being used as they should have been. That was shut down quickly, but that was disappointing.
The innovations that have been created in charters and what we hoped would be the partnership between charters and traditional public schools I don’t think has really come to pass. Instead, the traditional public schools tend to see charters as a threat instead of as a model, if you will, to be implemented.
EdSource: Last, we all remember that 2008 was supposed to be “the year of education.” It didn’t happen. is this “the year of education”? There’s a lot on the plate and a lot that could happen. What would you like to have happened in this year?
Burr: I certainly would love to see the Local Control Funding Formula put in place. It will phase in over several years, so we’ll have lots of opportunities to improve along the way.
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