Credibility gap would erode long-term promise of new funding system

Arun Ramanathan

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.

Filed under: Commentary, High-Needs Students, Local Control Funding Formula, Reforms, Testing and Accountability

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15 Responses to “Credibility gap would erode long-term promise of new funding system”

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  1. Lowell on Dec 7, 2013 at 9:56 am12/7/2013 9:56 am

    • 000

    I am very hopeful that the new LCFF-LCAP structure can provide a framework for greatly improved educational funding and outcomes for students. However, like Arun, I am also very concerned about the potential for using supplemental and concentrations funding (i.e., diverting funding specifically dedicated for high-needs students) for compensation increases. 

    Pressure on Superintendents and Boards by local union advocates to divert funding is starting NOW. We need (and struggling students need) effective strategies to apply offsetting pressure on Superintendents and Boards beginning now – or very soon!  I do not mean to imply that Superintendents and Boards are the “enemy.”  Instead, the message is that they do need outside support to offset the pressure they get from the local unions. 

    Encouraging Superintendents and Boards to do the right thing is, of course, an honorable endeavor.  However it probably isn’t enough to get the job done.  It may not even be enough to even get their attention. 

    The State Board might “throw a bone” to the advocacy groups who are pushing for stronger equity guarantees, but a strong equity structure is highly unlikely.  Therefore, an effort solely targeted on the State Board is probably not enough. An effective strategy will need to engage decision makers at the local level. 

    I truly wish you the best in this endeavor. 

  2. KSC on Dec 3, 2013 at 8:32 am12/3/2013 8:32 am

    • 000

    There are some pretty sweeping condemnations of school districts in this piece. As a deeply involved parent and community member, I have seen no evidence that services for “poor kids” “are the first things to be cut and the last things restored”. Quite the opposite. In fact, our district spends so much time turning itself inside out to meet compliance requirements, that what we know best serves our kids as parents and educators is often compromised by what someone in Sacramento thinks is best for our kids. We see programs like AVID make a huge impact, but we fund most of it through donors and grants because it doesn’t meet all of the criteria set out by a bureaucrat far removed from our community. We can’t wait for flexibility to implement what we know will work and try what we think might better serve our kids.

    So Arun, when you’re painting with your broad brush, don’t undo what LCFF and LCAP could do in communities like ours where school leaders, teachers, parents and community members are already working in partnership, putting kids first.

  3. Luis Santana on Dec 3, 2013 at 4:19 am12/3/2013 4:19 am

    • 000

    Thank you for describing the consequences if we do business as usual regarding LCFF. When i supported the LCFF I did believing that this time it was going to be different. Therefore count on me to fight. Luis Santana

  4. sherrie miranda on Dec 2, 2013 at 3:59 pm12/2/2013 3:59 pm

    • 000

    I was trying to remember that saying “penny wise, pound foolish” and I didn’t know why I couldn’t remember the exact words. It is because it is an English saying. For Americans, it should be “penny wise, dollar foolish”. Unfortunately, that seems to be the problem with this country, esp. the politicians and the corporations. They save pennies here and there in our budget, but the elephant in the room that everyone is ignoring is the war money. That is where most of our money goes and that $$ is making life more and more unstable here. America uses to be depended on to be the kind giant in the world, political arena. Now it is the giant that beats kind David no matter his race, ethnic background or country of origin.
    This is turning out to be a very sad story indeed.

  5. Darleen on Nov 28, 2013 at 9:12 am11/28/2013 9:12 am

    • 000

    Powerful piece, however in LCFF the real loser will be the parents, who are the biggest part of the education structure and the most maligned. Flexibility is not a benefit for parent involvement, it is a license to steal. Many parent leaders have seen the evolution of categorical and the rules, even then the structure and leadership found ways to flex funds and abuse. There was not a real accountability system, which CPM and FPM demonstrated that many LEA’s did not use funding properly, there was not a consquence mechanism like other laws. LCFF calls for parent involvement, but what does that mean when there is not a definition, specific guidelines or consequence. I would encourage to continue to have your voice and presence heard, your child’s life depends on it.

  6. Manuel on Nov 27, 2013 at 9:04 pm11/27/2013 9:04 pm

    • 000

    So now the model of NCLB (“outcome-based accountability”) is to be fully applied to LCFF? Really?

    How well has that worked for NCLB?

    There is no question that funding of schools has been shot to hell for a number of years. The Great Recession simply exacerbated the funding problems and gave leverage to those who want to undermine the concept of public schools nominally accountable to the public.

    Now that the CSTs are dead (long live the CSTs!) and the SBAC are not ready for prime time, what will be the accountability mechanism used to measure the effectiveness of any program funded by the supplemental and concentration grants? To date, all I hear is that services have to be increased, but I don’t see any discussion on what these programs look like and where they have been demonstrated to work. OTOH, given that the California schools never could get more than 60% of students to be proficient, does this mean that the schools are flawed or that CSTs were designed to never allow this? Seen from this POV, it is clear that accountability methods are themselves likely flawed. (Schools seem to have no problem filling the pipeline to UC and CSU so I dont’ think schools are as bad as the critics assert.) So what other accountability tool is there out there?

    True, all those involved in the public school system are staking their positions and the Usual Suspects have already made themselves present. True, money is the root of all the posturing. However, how can teachers and other staff be blamed for demanding the wages they’ve given up in the name of keeping the schools doors open? It is illogical to expect them not to ask for relief and redress. To deny them that is, at bottom, immoral.

    Meanwhile, back at the farm…

  7. Veteran CA Educator on Nov 27, 2013 at 3:47 pm11/27/2013 3:47 pm

    • 000

    Arun makes many excellent points. He is correct in saying that unions, administrator organizations, local boards, superintendents, CDE,the State Board of Education and establishment organizations favor fiscal flexibility because it allows them to continue to solve their financial and political problems while continuing to fail needy students. The CA education establishment fights accountability from every level and at every turn. Flexibility should be allowed only for those districts that are meeting “better than demographically expected” accountability targets that are set as measures of student achievement. Let’s get serious about accountability for the academic success of all students and then we can talk about fiscal flexibility. The education system should be for the benefit of students and communities, not for the proprietors of a failing status quo establishment.


    • el on Nov 27, 2013 at 10:28 pm11/27/2013 10:28 pm

      • 000

      It seems to me that “unions, administrator organizations, local boards, superintendents” etc wouldn’t have financial problems if they weren’t foolishly trying to use that money, declining money mostly, to educate more kids, and kids with greater needs. Seriously, there is no problem at all if you don’t care about the kids.

      Our school site doesn’t have a paid librarian. Any fool knows you need a trained staff librarian to have a functional library. Disadvantaged kids are the ones most in need of a strong library program. Instead, our school has frittered away the money on fripperies like math and PE and kindergarten. Disadvantaged kids need aide support, and art, and music, and field trips, and science labs, and CTE classes, and air conditioning, and teachers that aren’t fighting with outdated computers and broken copiers.

      People in Sacramento probably can’t find our school on a map; how can they know which of these elements would be most beneficial for our school to address for our kids, this year?

  8. navigio on Nov 27, 2013 at 2:11 pm11/27/2013 2:11 pm

    • 000

    What El said.

    One of the legacies of bad decisions is structural deficits. I think, however, that labeling those decisions as ‘bad’ based solely on whether they created structural deficits is mistaken. Districts have been put into the position of measuring ‘sufficiency’ by dollars rather than by what students need and by how to create a work environment that not only reasonably effective, but does not actively work against students. Had districts truly been putting kids’ needs first, most would have run obscene deficits. But of course they are not allowed. If they were to do that, the state threatens that it would come in, wrest control from the community and force kids to be underserved. Obscene.

    We have forced districts to do this for many years now. It seems odd that we would expect that to change now. It seems equally odd not to recognize that the impact of that change has hurt the entire system and that trying to rectify that is somehow ‘wrong’.

    The problem with LCFF is not so much who has control, it is that it does not change the size of the pie, so students’ needs will continue to simply be seen as relative to others’ needs within the system as opposed to by any absolute measure.

    And you are so right that bad behavior seriously hurts any chances for future, real funding. But while that is true, I dont want policy to be driven by what is politically acceptable. Segregation is an example where that does not work. We need to do right by kids then justify that behavior, even though there will always be those who will want to demonize public education regardless of what it actually does.

  9. Bill Younglove on Nov 27, 2013 at 12:52 pm11/27/2013 12:52 pm

    • 000

    Well put–mixed metaphors/idioms and all. LCFF should target areas that research has been shown to have a direct impact on student success. Any other expenditures are “off-target.” While you are addressing state (and districting) funding and expenditures here, isn’t it about time (past time, really) that those federally unfunded mandates for special student populations become, well…funded?

  10. Doug Lasken on Nov 27, 2013 at 11:47 am11/27/2013 11:47 am

    • 000

    Arun, thanks for the thoughtful analysis. As someone who has earned the teachers’ union backed lifetime health benefit and does not feel guilty about it, I will say that I don’t like the idea of funding it from sources, like poverty funds, that are supposed to go elsewhere. By the way, if you like Laurel and Hardy you may recall their version of the idiom you mention: “You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead.”

  11. el on Nov 27, 2013 at 10:15 am11/27/2013 10:15 am

    • 000

    One of the fundamental problems here is that the base funding isn’t adequate to meet the needs of schools. There’s not really any getting around that.

    Many school personnel have sacrificed immensely to keep programs alive, working longer hours, taking on more responsibility, taking effective pay cuts, through the darkest days of the last 5 years. They did this with the assumption that such sacrifice was temporary. That it could be sustained for a couple of years does not make it sustainable indefinitely.

    What was done in those dark days varies quite a lot by district. Some districts have highly paid staff and went to large class sizes and cut programs. Some districts pay well below the median and maintained smaller classes and more programs. To require both districts to respond to LCFF funding in the same way is foolish. To assume that no district ever previously made choices to benefit disadvantaged students is in error. To insist that supplemental money cannot be spent in a way that might benefit the base-only students is counterproductive.

    Reviewing changes from next year to the previous year is maybe part of the evaluation, but it’s really not as important as what are the needs of the kids THIS YEAR and what is being done to meet that need.

    A school with a lot of staff turnover is at a disadvantage. It’s appropriate to examine the situation and consider how to change that – administrator changes, more staff, more pay, better benefits, better facilities, whatever. Ending that turnover benefits all students, but especially disadvantaged students.

    It may be that simply asking people to justify using money in a particular way, and sunshining it and subjecting it to public scrutiny is enough. If not, changes can be made.

  12. Carl Cohn on Nov 27, 2013 at 8:57 am11/27/2013 8:57 am

    • 000

    Really like your concluding paragraph about a “reasonable compromise,” Arun…I don’t speak for the establishment, but I think everyone wants to avoid turning LCFF into a traditional categorical program which would be a tacit embrace of the status-quo.


    • Arun on Nov 27, 2013 at 9:52 am11/27/2013 9:52 am

      • 000

      That’s a fair concern. But increase and improve services gives a lot more flexibility than any categorical because districts can determine the mix of services best suited for local circumstances. The critical issues for the regs are how to make sure that there is actually any movey for those services and the meaning of service doesn’t become so broad as to become meaningless. One of the problems with the previous system was its complexity and opacity. I think that’s a greater potential problem with the LCAP partly becasue of the architecture of LCFF, than the expenditure regulations.

      • Skeptic on Nov 27, 2013 at 12:53 pm11/27/2013 12:53 pm

        • 000

        I’m struggling(*) with the lack of specific details about the regulations you’re advocating for. Let’s look at an example; many Charter Management Organizations charge a management fee (a percentage -15% in some cases- of a school’s revenues). Should there be a regulation to exclude Prop30 and LCFF money from that management fee? Is it the type of regulation you have in mind?

        (*) and not just because English is my fourth language.

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