Who Ensures That Parents Get a Real Voice?
(Success of California's new finance system depends on parent engagement, both to set funding priorities and to see that school districts follow through. This part of the law's implementation has not received the attention it deserves. Oscar Cruz is president of Families in Schools, one of the state's leading parent education and advocacy organizations.)
By Oscar E. Cruz
California is experiencing a critical period of education reform triggered by the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). LCFF seeks to boost student improvement by increasing the budgetary flexibility of school districts and by focusing resources on traditionally underserved student populations. The success of LCFF will ultimately rest on what I call "democratic accountability."
A strong democratic accountability system, one that will spur student achievement, requires two key components: a careful set of checks and balances between government agencies, and a strong civic engagement culture. Both of these are missing in the LCFF implementation plans. The State Board of Education has been clear that it wants to intervene as little as possible, getting involved only in extreme circumstances of district underperforming or mismanagement. At the same time, LCFF legislation gives little authority to County Offices of Education to take action if schools are not meeting goals, limiting their role mainly to that of process managers. Districts are basically being trusted to do the right thing.
Civic Engagement Mechanisms Broken
Furthermore, civic engagement mechanisms have been broken for a long time. Voting rates for recent school board elections are so low that getting a 10% turnout has become a cause for celebration. But it's not that families don't "care" about education issues; they face roadblocks. From unwelcoming school environments, poor communication from schools, cumbersome and inconvenient bureaucratic procedures, to outright discrimination, many districts and schools are sending parents and guardians a strong message: "stay away."
LCFF was created to eliminate the fragmented education and compliance mentality associated with categorical funding and at the same time increase focus on equity and financial supports for high need students. But LCFF may, in-fact, be creating more problems than it is solving.
If no one outside the districts watches implementation and results, a significant gap will emerge between district LCAP plans and the reality of what they do. Further, greater local fiscal autonomy will inevitably create a more politicized environment between interest groups which will threaten to further overshadow the voices of students and parents in decision-making.
Address Three Issues
California can avoid this grim scenario by addressing three key issues:
First, and most important, the state must establish clear parent engagement expectations for all school districts. Even though parent engagement is one of the eight state priorities under LCFF, districts are being allowed to define what they measure and how. Thus, the requirements and rules for parent engagement are inconsistent across the state. By establishing state-wide indicators for parent engagement, districts will be forced to revamp their practices and move beyond a "check the box" mentality towards a culture of authentic partnership with families to support student learning.
Second, the role of County Offices of Education as the "check and balance" on local districts must be expanded. The local accountability plans that districts create must not be taken at face value. A process needs to be created to verify what districts actually do and establish clear consequences when progress is not achieved. County Offices of Education should be given greater authority to intervene. While turn-around strategies may be needed in some cases, improvement can be spurred in many other ways. The ability of County Offices of Education to partner with community organizations will be more important than ever to provide quality technical support to districts wanting to improve the way they connect with families and communities.
Third, the responsibility to fostering civic engagement can't be left to districts alone. There is a great opportunity to forge partnerships between the philanthropic sector, other government agencies, and community organizers to help organize students and parents. Stuck between multiple interest groups, parents and students will need support to defend their interests. Parents and students will need access to accurate and reliable data, guidance in maneuvering the education bureaucracy, and ultimately, support in engaging civically to make their voices heard in decision-making.
LCFF holds the promise for improving schools and student learning, but it is an incomplete recipe. The missing ingredient is a strong accountability framework and strong parent and student engagement practices at its core.
Families in Schools has worked with dozens of organizations across the state to release a set of parent engagement indicators that we believe should be incorporated into the LCFF rubrics. Learn more at www.familiesinschools.org