Credibility gap would erode long-term promise of new funding system
Nov 27, 2013 | By Arun Ramanathan
English is my second language. I spent the early part of my life in India speaking my native tongue. When we immigrated to the West, I went to school to learn English.
After some early struggles, I have reached a fair degree of proficiency in the English language. I can now write blogs for EdSource Today, reports on educational inequities and letters to the State Board of Education. But there are still some things I have trouble doing.
I can’t spell worth a damn. My handwriting has been described as Martian hieroglyphics. And, like many English learners, I tend to mix metaphors and muddle catch-phrases.
This is an unfortunate problem for someone like me who loves idioms and metaphors. For example, for years I thought the saying was “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him think,” which was very confusing for me and the folks who heard me say it.
My new favorite idiom is “penny wise and pound foolish.” It’s about putting short- ahead of long-term gains. And it’s an apt description of the education establishment’s stance toward the proposed regulations for the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF).
Administrators, school boards and teachers unions, joined by prominent superintendents, support a set of regulations that would give them free rein with the funding, including the supplementary dollars generated by high-needs students. In public, they argue that they need this flexibility to better serve these students. But behind closed doors, many of them, including some of those superintendents who portray themselves as champions of poor children, are desperate to use this funding to “offset their structural deficits.”
In plain language, this means that districts want dollars generated by high-needs students to pay down salary, health benefit and other debts. Some of these wounds are self-inflicted, such as LAUSD’s decision years ago to provide lifetime health-care benefits to their employees and families. Others derive from districts’ failure to respond to external factors such as declining student enrollment. District leaders are similarly frank about wanting to use the funding to “make up for the sacrifices of their employees” in the bad times. Roughly translated, this means giving everyone a raise.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with districts giving across-the-board raises or trying to improve their balance sheets with the base funding generated by every student. But I have a hard time understanding why districts should be allowed to use the additional funding generated by low-income students, English learners and foster youth for these purposes – especially when the law says that this funding must be used to improve services for these students.
Of course, superintendents promise they will take care of their high-needs youth after they handle their structural deficits. But that’s already the status quo. In good times and bad, poor kids always get the short end of the stick. These services are the first things to be cut and the last things restored – even during the heyday of categorical funding. Instead of long-term investments in intervention and support services necessary to close achievement gaps, districts use short-term patches such as philanthropic giving, external grants with expiration dates (SIG, QEIA, etc.) and other more troubling routes such as identifying a student as disabled.
In contrast, the supplementary and concentration grants offer the real possibility of sustained investments in early intervention and ongoing services for underserved students in their schools. That promise, expressed by the governor and others, is why so many of us in the civil rights community supported the new funding formula.
This gap between the rhetoric that promoted the LCFF and the reality of its implementation is the proverbial elephant in the room. Complete flexibility with this funding means that nothing will improve in the schools and classrooms that serve California’s highest-needs students. This may be penny-wise for certain superintendents and Sacramento interest groups, but it is pound-foolish for California’s educational system and the new funding formula itself.
We all know that a few years from now, Proposition 30 will expire along with the funding it brings into our state’s coffers. Even with Prop. 30, we are still far from the national average for per-pupil funding. Fixing this will take a unified effort from a broad range of interests. But the current fight over the LCFF is splitting the very stakeholders essential to the success of that future initiative.
Further, this fight is exposing racial and class divisions in our education system. The demographic composition of our state has dramatically changed over the last 20 years. But that change has not been reflected in the ranks of educators or the education establishment. The interest groups supporting the proposed LCFF regulations do not reflect California’s ethnic, linguistic and racial diversity. On the other hand, the groups opposing total flexibility are representative of its communities and students. The distrust emerging from this divide over the new funding formula will impact its implementation at the local level and linger for years to come.
To truly resolve our education funding issues, we must convince the majority of California voters to make personal investments for our schools in the form of broad-based tax increases. The establishment should remember that “low propensity voters” from our highest-needs communities were crucial to the passage of Prop. 30 and will be similarly important to the success of any future initiative. The failure to appropriately spend LCFF funding will invariably be used to undermine any future argument for increased funding for schools. Misuse of supplementary funding will actually give that argument real credibility.
Lastly, the roots of any new reform are shallow. Building broad public faith and support during the early stages of implementation is essential. That will not happen for the LCFF with this level of dissension, even with the governor’s veto pen to protect it. The logic of the new funding system runs counter to the natural instinct of legislators to create dedicated programs for students. That instinct will not dissipate in the coming years, particularly if the LCFF does not result in any benefits for high-needs students. To secure the governor’s legacy on LCFF over the long term, it must result in visible changes in California’s education system, down to the school and classroom level.
I was an advocate for the LCFF. I want to see it succeed. The education establishment may get their wish for weak LCFF rules from the State Board of Education. But this will be a Pyrrhic victory for them and the LCFF and produce painful conflicts at the community and school district levels. Given the short- and long-term stakes, it would be far wiser if the education establishment and the civil rights community came together and constructed a reasonable compromise on the new regulations that truly balanced flexibility and equity. That would be penny- and pound-wise for both the adults in our education system and the children and communities they serve. After all, as the old saying goes, “a house divided against itself on the LCFF cannot stand.”
Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust–West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional and VISTA volunteer in California, New England and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.