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Community Engagement and School Spending: Coming Together in California

For the first time, school districts in California are trying to create budgets based on the new Local Control Funding Formula that lawmakers approved last year and the state board set rules for at the start of this year. That formula cut down on state bureaucracy, provided some policy flexibility to districts, and will gradually increase state K-12 funding significantly until 2020, in exchange for districts agreeing to shift significantly more resources (through "supplemental" and "concentration" grants) to help low-income students, English-language learners, and foster-care students. Districts with larger shares of those students will receive proportionately more funding through those two grants.

One of the biggest challenges for districts is the requirement that they involve parents and other community members much more deeply than they have in the past as they prioritize spending for the upcoming budget year. The state board's regulations mean that districts must use what they hear at the local level to help develop their plans to address needy students, one of the prime purposes of the new funding formula. (My colleague Evie Blad just published a blog post detailing how some advocacy groups who focus on school-discipline policies believe the additional funds under the formula should be spent.)

As this New America Media story shows, districts are trying to embellish their outreach so that they reach more people than the "same old parents" in terms of who shows up for public forums and who provides input. I chatted with Carrie Hahnel, the director of research and policy analysis at the Education Trust-West, about this sort of challenge—after all, school finance isn't necessarily the most natural topic for community members to feel comfortable with.

Hahnel said that as districts try to figure out what their communities feel the biggest challenges are, and how they should be addressed, large urban districts have shown more ease with the input-gathering process. The reason, Hahnel said, is somewhat straightforward: Those big districts are used to dealing with public opinion on a relatively large scale. By contrast, in some districts, community members have only been able to find out about public forums on new budget plans by calling central offices themselves, only to show up and find that they're the only people slated to give any remarks.

"I don't want to fault the districts too much, because they're figuring this out in real time ... but some districts have clearly had practice with this kind of thing," Hahnel told me.

Since this is new territory for districts, what are K-12 advocates keeping a close eye on as local schools develop their spending plans to address needy students? The policies on Hahnel's "naughty" list include using additional funds to pay off district debt or pension obligations—neither of those things, she said, directly helps needy students, however much districts might want to ease those burdens or get them off their backs entirely.

But sometimes districts' plans can be interpreted as either naughty or nice for the students targeted by the new state formula. For example, what about directing more resources towards the implementation of the Common Core State Standards? Or what about purchasing more personal technology for students to use? Both of those investments help all kids, needy and otherwise, Hahnel noted, but it's questionable to what extent they should really be considered "targeted" use of additional funds the way Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and other state-level supporters of the new funding formula intended. And then there is the consistent interest in creating smaller class sizes from parents and others, she said.

One more item of interest in this debate: Under the state K-12 regulations governing the new formula, states have to figure out how much they spentĀ priorĀ to the new formula on the three classes of students now classified as needy students, then compare that to how much they ultimately plan to spend when the phasing in of new money for districts under the formula is complete in 2020. Courtesy of the Sacramento County Office of Education, here's how that plays out on paper:

California.PNG

As Hahnel points out, the methods district use to calculate their previous budgetary effort on needy students are important—it might be easy for districts to "game" the number to their advantage. What does she emphasize? Transparency, and showing the public how they arrived at their numbers.

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