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Calif. Finance Law Still a Grand Vision and Cloudy Reality

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By Julia E. Koppich, Daniel C. Humphrey, Julie A. Marsh

California ended 40 years of reliance on categorical funding for schools when Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) into law on July 1, 2013. The LCFF shifts decision making about resource allocation from the state to local school districts. It also requires that parents, community members, and other education stakeholders be engaged in district decision-making and targets additional funds to low-income students, English learners, and foster youth. The LCFF requires districts to complete a Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) that must be reviewed by County Offices of Education (COEs).

LCFF-1.jpgTwo years into LCFF implementation, our research in 18 districts and more than half of the state's COEs found both reasons for optimism and some concerns. District officials remain enthusiastic about local control. Many report that the LCFF has allowed their districts to focus more on supports and services for high-needs students, improve budget development and strategic planning processes, and increase community engagement.

More Time Needed

Yet district and COE officials are nearly unanimous that fully implementing the LCFF will take more time. No one we interviewed favors a return to categorical funding; some issues nevertheless demand attention. Among these is the stubborn tension between local control and compliance.  A number of our study districts, for example, bristle a bit at the state's eight required priorities, saying focusing on all of these reduces their ability to select priorities that fit their own needs. Moreover, district and COE officials alike are concerned that the state's still-developing accountability system could further erode local decision-making authority.

The LCAP also presents lingering challenges. Many districts report that they remain unclear about its purpose and uncertain about what funds to include in it. Some are confused about the LCAP's 3-year development cycle and the accompanying annual updates. Several districts say the LCAP increasingly is compliance orientated and that the final product is neither transparent nor accessible to parents and other stakeholders.

A Work in Progress

Districts have made strong efforts through a wide range of activities to engage stakeholders in LCAP development. At this point, however, broad stakeholder engagement remains very much a work-in-progress. A number of districts experienced an uptick in engagement activity in this second year of LCFF implementation but at the same time, we found that parents and community members with the "loudest voices" are playing a more significant role in shaping LCAPs.

While the LCFF implicitly assumes the local school board will play a mediating role, bringing together disparate voices and interests to create a common district vision, our study found that many boards are not sufficiently involved in LCAP development to make this common vision a reality.   

Successfully implementing the LCFF requires a major transformation in mindset and approach for districts and COEs.  Perhaps not surprisingly, capacity challenges that could hamper smooth LCFF implementation are beginning to come to light. In some districts, these include shortages of personnel and expertise to manage human resource needs, collect data, track funding, design metrics, gauge progress, and lead stakeholder engagement.

Teacher Shortages a Problem

California's emerging teacher shortage has the potential to challenge districts' ability to make good on increased program and service commitments for LCFF target student populations.

Relatedly, COEs vary significantly in their capacity. Some are well able to handle their new responsibilities under the LCFF. Others struggle, with the result that COEs often send inconsistent messages or are unable to offer the kind of guidance and support they might like to districts.

In sum, after two years of implementation, enthusiasm for the principles of the LCFF remains strong.  This enthusiasm, however, is tempered by emerging concerns.  Some modest mid-course corrections would go a long way toward ensuring LCFF implementation remains on course.

Reaffirm the Big Picture

Among the recommendations in our report, we suggest that the state reaffirm the purpose of the LCFF to the public and educators, simplify the LCAP where possible and consider replacing it in the future, and attend to big picture issues such as district and COE capacity building and teacher shortages.

COEs need to redouble their efforts to help districts understand the goals and purposes of the LCFF, send clear and consistent messages about what their LCAP expectations for districts are, and demonstrate through their actions that LCAP development is more than a compliance activity. Districts, for their part, need to redefine meaningful community engagement and be more thoughtful about how to use the LCFF to create a common vision that can serve all students well.

The LCFF represents an enormously ambitious policy changed in the nation's largest state. It fundamentally changes the way education decisions are made, engages local stakeholders in these important decisions, and targets additional resources to historically underserved students. Despite the implementation challenges identified in our report, the LCFF remains a "Grand Vision" full of promise and potential.

Julia Koppich is president of Koppich & Associates, Daniel Humphrey is an independent consultant, and Julie Marsh is professor at the University of Southern California.  Their full report is published by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE)

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