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Local Control Funding Can Transform Schools

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By guest blogger Karen Hawley Miles

This is a big year for California schools.  Districts are grappling with new standards and assessments linked to the Common Core, as well as a new funding system that returns significant spending authority to districts for the first time in 40 years.  And now the year is off and running: classrooms are filling up with students, teachers are writing lesson plans, districts have handed in their first Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs), and most county offices, it seems, have approved them.

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Education leaders should give themselves a much-deserved pat on the back for making it this far.  But the revolution is really just beginning.

For many districts the first LCAP was a considerable project, involving many stakeholder meetings and alignment of multiple prior strategic plans to the new guidelines and expectations.  Others were less ambitious.  But for both groups, new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) continues to represent a golden opportunity to fundamentally transform how they use resources to meet the needs of their students.  LCFF reinvests money in K-12 education, shifts power to districts and communities, and directs funds to the neediest students.  The process will undoubtedly continue to evolve, as the State Board of Education finalizes regulations and districts consider their LCAP updates. But this is about more than filling in a form.  It's about seizing the moment so that California leads the nation in creating systems that ensure all students reach new, higher standards.

New Funds Often Lead to Old Priorities

When there is an influx of new funds--particularly following budget cuts--there is a temptation to first reverse the cuts.  But the new dollars will be spent quickly, and it doesn't make sense to return to "business-as-usual" policies which didn't yield the student outcomes we want in the first place.  Instead, districts should take a holistic look at how all resources--people, time, technology, and money--are used across schools, and consider innovative strategies that support all struggling learners, including high-needs students.  This feels like a tall order, but from our work with districts across the country, we have identified transformative ideas to make that goal a reality:

  1. Restructure one-size-fits-all teaching job structures and compensation to foster individual and team effectiveness and to reward contribution.  Currently, teaching careers look roughly the same regardless of individual contribution, expertise, and aspiration. And most teacher compensation schedules give increases based on longevity and educational attainment factors that have little or no impact on student performance.  Often less than 2% of compensation pays for things that do impact performance, such as teachers' increased responsibility, taking on more challenging roles, or generating consistently higher student results.  Districts can use this opportunity to rethink the entire "value proposition" of teaching--including work hours, benefits, and leadership opportunities, along with salary.
  2. Realign investment in professional development to focus on expert support and time for teaching teams rather than one-off workshops.  Research suggests that effective professional development is embedded in the daily job of teaching, takes place over time, and allows for ongoing practice and feedback. Instructional coaches and teacher leaders can model effective practices as part of regular, content-specific planning, allowing teachers to help each other solve real-world problems.
  3. Rethink rigid class sizes and one-teacher classroom models to target individual attention, especially for high-needs students prioritized by LCFF.  Most students spend their entire day in classes of the same or random sizes, regardless of the subject or their individual academic needs.  A more strategic approach would have students spend their day in a variety of settings.  For one subject they might be in a large class, but for another subject they might be in a small group, a 1-1 session, or even have computer-based instruction.  This kind of flexibility allows school leaders to get the most out of the school's highly effective teachers as well as provide a customized approach for each student.  Though LCFF does contain class size mandates, school leaders can flexibly group students and teachers throughout the school day as long as they maintain the average class size goal across each school site. Districts can also link increases in teacher salary to extended time for students, particularly high-needs groups.
  4. Redirect special education spending to early intervention and targeted individual attention for all students.  Special education is one of the remaining state categorical spending streams; however, there is often more flexibility than is commonly believed.  For example, IDEA funds can be used for early intervention, which could help reduce the number of students placed in high-cost special education programs.  It is also cost-effective--and better for students--to promote inclusion strategies. This means providing opportunities for special needs students to learn with their general education peers, for special education teachers to push in to general education classes, and for all students to benefit from individualized teaching strategies crafted during collaborative planning time.
  5. Support and develop leadership teams. Strong school leadership is critical to teacher effectiveness and retention, as well as student success, but many districts do not explicitly invest in leader recruitment, professional development, career growth, or support.  A recent study by Eric Hanushek, Gregory Branch, and Steven Rivkin shows that "highly ffective principals raise the achievement of a typical student in their schools by between two and seven months of learning in a single school year." Districts must clearly define what effective leaders need to know and be able to do, and then use that guidance to hire and develop the right leaders, place them in the right situations over their careers, measure their performance, hold them accountable, and give them the right support.
  6. Leverage outside partners and technology to maintain or improve quality at lower cost. In tough budget times, many districts have been forced to cut all but the "core" staff.  But communities have a variety of resources, such as community colleges, youth service organizations, and others who may be able to provide some of what was traditionally only offered by schools, and they may be able to do it at improved quality and/or lower cost. The same is true for technology solutions like online courses and expanded curricular offerings.

It would be overwhelming to implement all or even many of these initiatives in a short time period, but because LCFF funding is phased in over eight years, districts have the opportunity to develop an overall vision and implement pieces successively.  To achieve sustainable district transformation, though, districts must also plan to take on the bigger and more difficult changes.  An exercise like School Budget Hold'em, which ERS has developed, can help districts think through these big decisions.

California districts are at a unique moment in time. The state has decided to make education a priority by ceding control over resource use to districts. The question is whether districts will see LCFF and the LCAP as just another compliance exercise, or whether they will take advantage of this moment to fundamentally reinvent themselves for the coming generations.


(Karen Hawley Miles, president and executive director of Education Resource Strategies (ERS), a non-profit organization dedicated to transforming how urban school systems organize resources--people, time, technology, and money--so that every school succeeds for every student.)

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