Juvenile Justice

Published — October 18, 2013 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Calif. governor kills major school-discipline reform bill, deferring to ‘local control’

Calif. editorials urge accountability in response to Center’s ‘throwaway’ student stories


California Gov. Jerry Brown has upset school discipline reform advocates by vetoing a bill that would have made it tougher to transfer students to alternative “community” schools. Brown said he was deferring to “the skill and good faith” of local educators.

Gov. Jerry Brown, second from left, after delivering a State of the State address before a joint session of the Legislature at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Reform advocates, including some prominent educators and law-enforcement officials, say such student transfers are sometimes poorly planned, and carried out before a child gets proper counseling or other services at home schools. They also claim too many transfers end up depriving struggling students of an equal education and increase risks they will drop out rather than succeed.

The proposal that Brown vetoed on Oct. 12 was Senate Bill 744 authored by Sen. Ricardo Lara, a Democrat of Bell Gardens. Lara said he’s concerned by estimates that more than one-third of the tens of thousands of students moved into alternative community campuses every year end up dropping out.

The majority of these students are from low income families and are Latino or black. Some are moved into the alternative campuses as punishment for violating school rules. Many others are involuntarily transferred to alternative settings because they’re behind academically or judged to be truant.

Lara’s bill would have stopped involuntary transfers of homeless students to alternative campuses. And it would have required that transferred students’ home districts confirm there is actually space for students at alternative schools and that those campuses can handle the students’ needs. The proposal would have also prohibited community schools from imposing new requirements that block students from returning to their school of origin once original transfer terms are met.

SB 744 would have also required that students involuntarily transferred be reassigned to community schools that are “geographically accessible.”

Earlier this year, the Center for Public Integrity reported on the hidden reality of California students reassigned to county-run community schools so far away — 20 to 40 miles from their homes – that their working parents were unable to transport kids to and from campuses.

Parents told the Center they felt forced to put children on home-study programs that allow county schools to collect five days’ worth of attendance-based funding for students, but leave kids at home most of the week to educate themselves. Other students whose parents are farmworkers never made it to far-off alternative schools, and had to drop out.

One of them, a 14-year-old girl, was readmitted to her regular school this month only after an intervention by local community organizers and publication of the Center’s reports. Erika Brooks of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, a community-organizing group in Kern County, said the cases of two other students languishing out of school are still under review.

The Sacramento Bee and Fresno Bee published editorials this month in response to the Center’s findings. The pieces called for more tracking and accountability to “reverse the tide of ‘throwaway kids’” cut loose from regular schools and “relegated to a largely hidden world of alternative schools or independent study.”

Brown, a Democrat, vetoed Lara’s bill with a brief message professing his belief that a new “local control” school funding formula in California will create “greater equity” for students in low-income districts and “increased accountability at the local level.”

“I’m putting my trust,” Brown also said, “in the skill and good faith of local educators to manage the issues that are the subject of this bill in a caring and responsible way.”

Advocates who worked with Lara on his bill reacted angrily, arguing that the new funding formula has no bearing on the problems the proposal sought to address.

They said they had worked hard to amend the bill to satisfy the concerns of the Association of California School Administrators and the California School Boards Association. The two groups told Lara they were “pleased” to remove their opposition and take a neutral stance.

A law-enforcement association, Fight Crime, Invest in Kids, and a number of prominent law-enforcement officials — including Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens — supported Lara’s bill. Law-enforcement officials are concerned about students who are suspended or otherwise removed from school getting into trouble if they’re unsupervised at home.

“This bill was long negotiated, long discussed,” said Laura Faer, statewide education rights director in California for Public Counsel, the nation’s largest pro bono law firm, which worked with Lara on his bill. “These kids have been thrown away for too long.”

Public Counsel, on its website, pointed out that Brown recently talked about his own discipline problems as a boy, but that he benefited from having a powerful advocate, his father, who was attorney general and governor of California.

In May, according to the Bay Area News Group, Brown told a gathering of business people that last year he vetoed another discipline-reform bill that would have eliminated “willful defiance” as grounds for out-of-school suspensions.

“I vetoed it because I used to be willfully defiant myself,” Brown said. “Getting kicked out of school, that got my attention. Luckily, my father was the attorney general. So, I got back in the next day. “

Public Counsel’s website posting compared Brown with low-income students who do not have powerful parents and who face “life-changing” consequences when removed from schools.

“These children do not need more excuses about why schools to which they are involuntarily assigned are too far away or do not even have a seat for them,” Public Counsel said. “…They need the governor to act as his father did for him when he got in trouble as an advocate for a child’s right to get back into a school that helps you learn and succeed.”

At an August hearing at the state Capitol in Sacramento, Lara’s bill received a strong endorsement from Cuauhtemoc Avila, assistant superintendent of educational programs for Los Angeles County Schools, which is responsible for taking in children transferred out of regular schools.

Avila told legislators that in his experience, regular schools sometimes refer students to county schools without even knowing if there is space for a student. He complained of “minimal” communication between regular districts and county districts, and incomplete transfer paperwork that leaves kids in limbo — and out of class — for weeks. He said some parents are given an “ultimatum” to acquiesce to involuntary transfers, or their kids will face an official expulsion hearing.

“Parents acquiesce out of frustration and simply hoping that a change in school will make a difference for their children,” Avila said. “This practice is neither ethical nor academically sound. It is, however, a clear violation of due process and antithetical to a student’s social and academic needs.”

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