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Slow Implementation Endangers School Funding in Calif.

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If I were Gov. Jerry Brown, I'd read the research report about implementing California's Local Control Funding Formula that was released last Friday.  Its implications threaten the legacy of the governor's signature education legislation.

That's my conclusion after reading a report by the Local Control Funding Formula Research Collaborative, a group of researchers who have been tracking California's finance system.  That system devolves money and responsibility to local schools and districts, following Brown's belief in the Jesuit ideal of subsidiarity.

The LCFF law was passed in 2013, but implementation is still considered a "work in progress."

Moving Toward Equity

"The good news is that as districts implement the LCFF, they are working toward more transparency, coherence, and equity than was possible under the previous law," said Julia Koppich, one of the members of the LCFF Research Collaborative.  The older system of categorical financing, she noted, was "sometimes ineffective and often ignored student needs."

LCFF replaced scores of programs where relatively small amounts of money targeted for specific purposes, and school districts were held accountable for spending the funds within narrow bounds.  Accountability was built around tracking inputs.  In its place, the state created a larger base of funding for all districts and supplemented that with extra funds for students in poverty, English learners, and foster youth.  Schools with a high percentage of these students received an additional concentration grant.

The report, Paving the Way To Equity and Coherence? The Local Control Funding Formula in Year 3, is the third is a series of studies of eight unnamed school agencies: seven districts and a charter management organization.

It notes that districts made good faith efforts to allocate supplemental and concentration grants to the targeted students by, for example, hiring more counselors and social workers, adding tutors and specialized teachers as well as expanding Advanced Placement offerings.

 

Moving Toward Collaboration

As earlier reports found, budgeting appears to be more collaborative.  Instructional and business offices in school districts are working more closely together.  Six of the eight districts moved some resource allocation decisions to schools.

Educators and community members like the new system.  "We spent three years trying to find someone in the state that wants to go back to the old system and we haven't found that person yet," said Daniel Humphrey, a member of the research team.

Impatience and Suspicion

But the fact that educators like the system hasn't lessened the impatience for results and suspicion that the school districts are not creating the equity the law demands.  While State School Board president Michael Kirst counsels "persistence, patience, and humility," pressure from legislators and advocates is likely to recreate elements of a categorically funded, compliance-managed system.

Case in point: AB 1321, won approval of the Assembly Education Committee this past week.  Authored by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) with the support of Children Now, Education Trust-West, and numerous other organizations, the announced purpose of the bill is to track supplemental and concentration grant funds into the schools to see if they are being spent on the students the law intends to support. 

As the bill analysis by committee staff says, "Supporters argue that the disaggregation of LCFF funds required by this bill 'will finally enable the transparent reporting of supplemental and concentration grant expenditures for each local education and each school in California.'"

To me, it looks like regulatory overreach that's likely to prioritize compliance thinking about allocating inputs rather than strategically thinking about how to best use resources to produce desired outputs.  The new state dashboard and the local control funding formula template are trying to incentivize districts concentrate on outputs.

Parents Need To Know

Ryan Smith, the executive director of Education Trust-West sees the bill differently.  In response to a query, he said, "We also think budget transparency is a key aspect of subsidiarity and the California Way.  In order for parents and locals to engage in the LCFF process they have to know their school site expenditures."

My purpose here is not to debate the merits of Weber's bill, but to illustrate the difficult politics faced by the state's grand experiment in pushing money and responsibility to the local level.  The natural instinct of legislatures is to legislate, and the natural instinct of civil rights organizations is to profoundly distrust local governments and to promote stronger regulatory oversight.

Although it does so in very measured language, Paving the Way, suggests that there is still confusion about the meaning of equity in the law and a dramatic lack of capacity about how to create a coherent system that links knowable inputs to measurable outputs.

Define Equity

The report noted that most districts defined equity as the law intended: "equity as equal opportunity through differentiated supports."  That was the case particularly in districts with large percentages of targeted students.  But there was also evidence from one of the case study districts in particular that equity meant equal funding regardless of need.

"For example, all students' SAT [test] fees were paid for out of supplemental and concentration funds regardless of need because this was the 'fair' thing to do. The goal in this district was to ensure resources are provided equally to all students, including those in wealthier neighborhoods, because those schools that do not receive Title I funds would otherwise be treated unfairly."

Even if the intent of the law is clear, Paving the Way clearly suggests that the capacity to implement it is not: "Our research has shown that the LCAP cannot achieve the multiple purposes assigned to it: 1) stakeholder engagement and communication, 2) strategic planning and budgeting, and, 3) accountability for equity."

To put this a little more bluntly: Districts and schools need more help than they are getting from the California Department of Education and the State Board of Education.  To protect the integrity of the law and its continuity beyond the Brown administration, they need that help now.

Time To Step Up

Here's where I think the state and philanthropic organizations could step up their game:

Provide guidance.  Guidance is not regulation.  It does not have to be written in such a way that each school and district must tick off the same boxes, but schools and districts (and county offices) need help in figuring out how they should spend their money to meet equity goals.

Glen Price, California Department of Education chief deputy, said in an interview, "We've been gearing up.  Our prime focus will be working with counties and CCEE."

I think it's time to move beyond gearing up and pop the clutch.

Schools and districts also need help in making connections between inputs and outputs.  In Thomas Kuhn's classic book on paradigm shifts, he noted that one sure way to know that a new idea had supplanted an old one was that someone would write a text about how to operate the new system.

Provide help: The researchers that undertook Paving the Way know that there are exemplars in California districts.  The study itself was done with pledges of anonymity to participating districts and schools, but nothing prevents the research collaborative from gathering together the best examples of current practice.

Techniques exist to make coherent connections between inputs and outputs.  The well tested "learning to improve" techniques developed by Anthony Bryk and the Carnegie Foundation for Teaching come to mind.  Michael Fullan, the Canadian educator, has been advising California school leaders about how to use the system Coherence, the book he wrote with Joanne Quinn.

Paving the Way, underscores the urgency in making these tools available to every school in the state.  The California Collaborative on Educational Excellence has wisely been taking measured steps at building district capacity for self help.  Its director, Carl Cohn, understands that improvement is a "long slog" and that the first step is to understand what caused achievement problems in the first place.  

But progress beyond the pilot stage is needed this year.  The legislature and the stakeholders need a signal that there is a system in place that will help schools get better, that educators find the system useful, and that stakeholders find it fair and beneficial.

Empower communities.  The new finance system was designed to substitute vigilant communities, who understood the local context of schooling, in place of state compliance officers. 

Education Trust-West has a tool kit for budget engagement.  It has established a community-based research hub in San Bernardino County.  Children Now has a handy timeline and links to resources from other organizations.  Families in Schools offers a well-tested parent engagement curriculum and training.

I'd love to see the state's philanthropic community double down on supporting the organizations that are teaching parents civic engagement.

I want to see California's bold steps into reforming finance and accountability work.  I want to see school districts and their stakeholders get smarter about how to spend scarce resources.  I want to see teachers and their unions engage the budgetary process with the same vigor that they engage traditional collective bargaining.

I don't want to see nervousness and mistrust of the process undermine its eventual success.  But I fear that I will, and Governor Brown should share my fear.

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