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How Is California's Dramatic Overhaul of K-12 Spending Working Out?

California adopted a fundamentally new plan for how it spends money on its public schools earlier this year, vesting more decision-making power at the local level and eliminating a lot of state oversight, even as overall spending increased. But Golden State lawmakers left many of the details (read: regulations) about how this plan would work up to the state Board of Education. This meant that the state board would have to answer the biggest question about this new plan, called the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF): How much flexibility would school districts have in deciding how to provide resources for low-income, English-language learner, and foster-care students?

Last week provided a possible answer. At its Nov. 7 meeting, the state board reviewed a draft of regulations governing the local-control formula, and its members have until January 31 of next year to officially adopt the final version. As John Fensterwald at EdSource reported, after hearing five hours of public testimony from 188 speakers about the draft regulations, the state board asked for revisions to the draft regulations I've linked to. But if the core of the regulations holds up, districts would have three options in terms of spending these "targeted" state funds, as Jonathan Kaplan at the California Budget Project neatly describes it: 

• Districts could "spend more." This is the most straightforward option, at least statistically. One example of this "spend more" approach in the regulation would be for districts to increase their spending on those groups of students, so that by the time the formula is fully implemented (the year 2020), spending on these "needy" students  will meet or exceed the formula's targeted spending level for those groups.

• Districts could "provide more." This may sound like a different way of "spend more" but the state board defines it differently. For a district to "provide more" to those at-risk demographics, it could offer extended learning time, reduce class sizes, offer targeted professional development, or add new learning options. Those initiatives, invariably, would cost more money, but this option wouldn't require districts to meet a target funding level.

• Districts could "achieve more." This is perhaps the most controversial one. The regulations say that districts could satisfy the requirements of LCFF by showing significant growth in the preceding two- or more year period for unduplicated pupils, as documented by state or local data. No mention of meeting a spending target or adding programs. If the students are doing better academically and it can be measured in some form, the state would be satisfied.

You can imagine that those who have supported the LCFF because it ostensibly provided a huge boost in dollars for high-needs districts for those high-needs students are not pleased about that last option. A letter sent to state Board President Michael Kirst by 70 organizations, including the California affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union, The Education Trust-West, and Public Advocates, said that in theory, through this choice, a district could "spend all of its supplemental or concentration dollars entirely on non-needy students, salaries, or central office expenditures without any real consequence." 

Those groups also said that ideally, the first two options would be combined so that districts couldn't avoid increasing the actual spending on students in need, the central pillar of LCFF, they stress. And they also say that the "core services" provided by the targeted funding for needy students should be specified, but aren't in the draft regulations. 

What about school districts? In brief, the California School Boards Association expressed support, saying that the proposed regulations "honor the key precept of subsidiarity and are faithful to the goals of transparency and accessibility by all stakeholders." As I've reported, as the LCFF was being developed and debated earlier this year, districts stressed that the state had to avoid subjecting the formula to the same kinds of burdensome rules and requirements that previously, in their view, plagued the state. 

Meanwhile, state board members also expressed concern about how these three options would fit with the accountability plan required by the funding formula. That plan requires districts to show how they've increased resources to meet eight goals set by the state, including improving student achievement and school climate. 

It's not clear exactly how the board wants the regulations revised, according to Fensterwald. But it will be interesting to see if that third "achieve more" option survives the cut and makes it into the version the board votes on. That vote, Kaplan says, will likely take place in January. 

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