Parents listen Tuesday during a forum on the Local Control Funding Formula organized by the Berkeley Unified School District. Credit: Mark Coplan, Berkeley Unified School District

Parents listen during a Tuesday night forum on the Local Control Funding Formula at the Berkeley Unified School District. A new EdSource survey found that most parents have not heard of the new spending law. Credit: Mark Coplan, Berkeley Unified School District

A new statewide survey by EdSource suggests that parents are eager to get involved in school district spending decisions, but underscores the need for districts to actively engage parents if they are to fulfill their new role under the state’s Local Control Funding Formula.

Across the board, parents are generally satisfied with their children’s schools, but the survey revealed differences between high- and low-income parents. The survey suggests that districts will need to make extra efforts to connect to low-income parents, who reported a higher degree of dissatisfaction with their child’s school than parents with higher incomes. Lower-income parents were also more likely to feel that only a small group of parents are engaged in decision-making opportunities at their child’s school.

The survey of 1,003 parents across California is the first to look at how connected and involved parents are with their children’s schools. It found that the majority of parents had heard “nothing at all” about the state’s new finance system, which requires districts to involve parents in spending decisions. Altogether, 57 percent said they had not heard of the formula, compared with 9 percent who said they knew a great deal about it.

But when they were given a short explanation of the Local Control Funding Formula, three-quarters of parents said they supported the idea and close to three-quarters were willing to commit from an hour to 10 hours per week helping guide school spending decisions. Only one in 10 opposed the reforms, which were signed into law in July by Gov. Jerry Brown. The new finance system gives districts much more say over how funds are spent. The law also names parent involvement as one of several “priority areas” that schools must focus on.

In a statement Thursday, California State PTA president Colleen A.R. You said the finding that few parents are aware of the new funding law “is a call to action.”

“Significantly, the State Board of Education has not yet even approved the regulations for how this new law will be implemented,” You said. “It takes some time before education reforms approved in Sacramento become ‘real’ to most parents in their everyday lives. Clearly, this finding means we have our work cut out for us in the upcoming months as we all to try to achieve widespread awareness about the new LCFF and the opportunities and necessity for parents to be engaged.”

The survey was conducted via telephone by the firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates (FM3) between Nov. 5–12 and was underwritten by The California Endowment.* The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

Source: EdSource California Public School Parent Survey

Source: EdSource California Public School Parent Survey (Click to enlarge)

Contrary to popular perceptions that many parents are disengaged from their children’s schools, three-quarters of parents surveyed said they were “very” or “somewhat” involved in their child’s school, with close to one-third (30 percent) saying they were very involved. Most also gave favorable ratings – an A or B – to their children’s schools, and most reported high levels of communication with them, thus creating a good foundation for parents to become involved in district financial decision-making.

However, said Justine Fischer, president-elect of the California State PTA, the challenge will be to involve parents beyond supporting their own children in school.

Lisa Berlanga, executive director of the parent advocacy group San Diego United Parents for Education, agrees.

“The poll shows that the way most parents are engaged is in traditional ways, such as volunteering in class or attending a parent-teacher conference,” she said. “They don’t participate in the decision-making of schools.”

The survey also reveals distinct differences among high-income and low-income parents:

  • Nearly four in 10 parents (39 percent) who report incomes of $100,000 or more describe themselves as “very involved” in their child’s school, compared to only 24 percent of those reporting incomes of $30,000 or less.
  • Forty-three percent of parents with incomes higher than $100,000 give their child’s school an A, compared to only 25 percent of parents with incomes of under $30,000.
  • Thirty-nine percent of low-income parents feel that only a small group of parents have the opportunity to engage in decision-making at their child’s school, compared to only 19 percent of high-income parents who feel that way.

These differences suggest schools will have to work harder to engage low-income families, whose children are targeted for extra funds under the new finance system.

Source: EdSource California Public School Parent Survey

Source: EdSource California Public School Parent Survey (Click to enlarge)

Schools need to overcome language and cultural barriers because many of the low-income children come from immigrant families, said Oscar Cruz, president and CEO of Families in Schools in Los Angeles, a nonprofit whose mission is to involve parents in improving their children’s schools.

During an LCFF public forum Tuesday night at LeConte Elementary School in Berkeley, Leo Stegman, whose daughter recently graduated from Berkeley High, said districts have to consider new ways to bring low-income and minority parents into the process, starting with meeting locations.

“Meetings shouldn’t all take place in schools; there should be some out in the community,” Stegman said.

Cruz said that many parents don’t feel welcome at schools and believe that teachers and administrators see them as a burden on the system instead of understanding their dreams – why they immigrated to this country. Immigrants with very little formal education also need to feel empowered to question well-educated teachers, he added.

“What parents want is a close relationship with their own local school and to feel that their role matters,” Cruz said.

Overall, parents cited a lack of time and conflicting work schedules as the major obstacles to getting more involved in giving input on how funds will be spent.

Parents also say there are several steps schools could take to increase their involvement, including giving plenty of advance notice of meetings and assuring them that they will have a meaningful voice in the process. Nearly half said child care at meetings would also make a difference, and a smaller number said transportation and translations from English would also help.

“If you are committed to getting broader parent involvement, you are not going to do things the way you have been doing them, such as holding meetings at times when parents can’t attend,” said Hope Salzer, board member of Educate Our State, a San Francisco-based parent advocacy group.

Districts should also provide child care and a meal for families to make it easy for parents to attend, she said.

“If kids have secure, safe and age-appropriate child care, parents can focus on the school business,” Salzer said.

Besides improving day-to-day relations with parents, districts need to use some of their funds to provide training to parent leaders so they can make informed financial decisions, Cruz said. Almost two-thirds of the parents surveyed said they would be interested in such trainings.

Source: EdSource California Public School Parent Survey

Source: EdSource California Public School Parent Survey (Click to enlarge)

Berlanga said it may not be as important to explain the new finance system to every parent as it is to get meaningful input from parents on where the funding should be spent in their school.

“What’s critical to ask is what is going to make a difference in your community, what do your kids need,” she said. “That’s the question any parent can answer whether they understand the Local Control Funding Formula or not.”

To reach parents, the survey indicates, districts may need to rely on more traditional methods of communication. Respondents said they learn about their children’s school primarily through conversations with their children, information sent home with students, conversations with the child’s teacher, and school newsletters. They relied much less on newer methods of communication such as online networks and text messages from the school.

*The California Endowment provides financial support to EdSource, but has no say in its editorial decisions.

Senior reporter Kathryn Baron contributed to this report. Contact reporter Susan Frey. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.

Filed under: Featured, Local Control Funding Formula, Parents, Reporting & Analysis

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  1. Eric Premack says:

    In California, 90+ percent of school districts’ spending decisions are made at the labor bargaining table. Given that these negotiations almost always occur behind closed doors and the results presented to the board and public as “baked” deals, one is compelled to wonder if parent voice in budgetary decisions will remain token until larger reforms come to fore.

    1. el says:

      That might be where a decision is finalized, but that’s a culmination of say a year’s worth of attitudes and musings.

      If you want to influence whether your district will be wanting to pay teachers more, less, or the same next year, and by what magnitude, the way to do that is via public comment at board meetings, letters to the editor, communications with school board members, and community sentiment starting now. The board and the administration and the teachers will consciously or unconsciously absorb the community sentiment for what should be the next step if there are new funds – pay teachers more? schedule deferred maintenance? reduce class sizes? add programs?

      Which is of course the whole point of LCAP, to formalize it.

    2. Doctor J says:

      @eric, you have added a ditto to some of my prior posts that parents should be included in the district bargaining teams which control at least 80% of the line items in the budgets for salary and benefits. Even more important is that many districts have a secret “me too” agreement with administrators that automatically gives the administrators the exact same percentage of raise as the teachers or other unions — because of the disparity in pay scales, the percentages widen the earning gaps and conceal the true costs of raises to union contracts by not factoring in the secret raises to administrators.

      1. el says:

        It seems to me the role of the Board is to represent the community, and that a negotiating table is a bad place for a crowd. Hopefully, some of your Board members are parents. YMMV.

    3. KSC says:

      A savvy district might consider parents a party to negotiations. I can see the conversation changing should a strong parent advisory council recommend funding priorities that might differ from bargaining unit or administration priorities. If those interests were not represented at the table behind closed doors and the outcome is “sorry, no can do” there could potentially be some backlash that might change the dynamic or who sits on the school board.

      If parents really learn how things work we just might see more of them running for those seats and rejecting those “baked” deals.

      1. el says:

        Budget information type meetings are a good thing, good for staff and for the community. In most districts, the funding decisions are made too far away from the school sites, which means they encompass too many people for inclusive decisionmaking. But it is at these kind of informal and open meetings that priorities are best set, long before people go in for negotiations. This is where the financial situation can be discussed and tradeoffs examined – in this location, with the current conditions, what programs need to be cut, what need to be expanded, and would we rather add services or better fund what we have already?

        There is no reason why your best and most thoughtful parents and community members shouldn’t be your school board. School board races tend to be low information. In the era of the internet and cheap desktop publishing, it doesn’t have to be expensive to change that.

  2. Jeff Camp says:

    Two thoughts:
    (1) We are heading into a series of years that will be loaded with changes. Local funding. New EdTech options. Core Curriculum. Changes in the accountability system. If each district separately has to take on the work of educating its parents about these changes, it will be very costly and fractious. Parent leaders have a lot to offer, especially if they do their homework. Therefore, an important element of parent engagement in the coming few years should be intentional work to PREPARE parent leaders.
    (2) For districts, information-rich engagement with parents costs money and time. I’m all for it, but time is a finite resource and some interactions are more valuable than others, right? An old trick for that I have found provocative is to estimate the cost of a meeting by assigning a value to each person’s time, even if it’s just minimum wage. Just the exercise helps drive focus.
    3) The good news is that helping parent leaders actually know something about education issues, while hard, is easier than it used to be. There are good, easily accessible sources of information that haven’t been around before. EdSource Today brings timely clarity to the education news as it happens in California in a way that has created a single “water cooler” for the California education cognoscenti. It’s not alone in this work, thanks to foundations supporting an ecosystem of resources. is a good resource for rising parent leaders to learn how these issues fit together — it organizes California education issues into a curriculum, often linking to EdSource posts in the process. PACE exposes academic research that once was only available to wonks with a university-provided academic researcher badge. California Budget Project lays bare the facts on budgets and fiscal matters. ChildrenNow and EdTrustWest make it easy for parents and organizational leaders know when their voice is needed in Sacramento. The state PTA brings parent leaders together and helps them become local agents of change.

    Educating PREPARED parent leaders won’t be easy, but it isn’t optional, and might be quite helpful in a time when change could be quite wrenching.

    1. Paul Muench says:

      Good recommendations!

  3. TransParent says:

    How is any of this information a revelation? Districts have received funding for years which was specifically earmarked to train parents and to train teachers to talk with parents. There is no monitoring or evaluation of any of these efforts and families are generally the last to know anything about changes to policy, practice or decision-making.

    I have finally become too jaded, too cynical about the whole thing. This is sounding an awful lot like what is old is new again. It isn’t.

    1. darleen says:

      TransParent your comment is right on. Parent Involvement is NOTHING new in regards to priority. Look at several previous federal laws. LCFF is nothing but a license to steal.

      1. Doctor J says:

        Remember the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about the Emperor who paraded without clothes and everyone was afraid to tell him ? Its alive and well in Education in the guise of painting a fluffy picture of “parent involvement” but without real substance. I know of an Assistant Superintendent who frequently tags her weekly memos to Principals and Office Managers with quotes about being positive and ignoring the negative — that is simple “code” for “Don’t tell me the Emperor has no clothes.” Here is one example I saw recently: “Surround yourself with positive influences. When you are surrounded by negative thinkers, image, or materials, it is easy to get bogged down in hopelessness.”
        -Nido Qubein, President of High Point University, North Carolina

        1. el says:

          With respect, I don’t interpret that quote in the same way you do.

          To me it is a difference between, “It can’t be done, it will never work, you’re not good enough to even try” versus, “This is a tough problem. How can we attack it? How can we break it apart into something we can attack?”

          1. Doctor J says:

            @el, Since I know the person and have seen her send those to “Siberia” who tell the Emperor he has no clothes, I interpret it a different way. However, you are right, in isolation and without knowing the person, it could be interpreted like an Apollo 13 situation: find the solution !

  4. Paul Richman says:

    Thanks EdSource for the excellent survey data. The finding that 57 percent of parents are not yet aware of the new LCFF is not necessarily surprising, but it is a call to action. Significantly, the State Board of Education hasn’t yet even approved the regulations for how the new law will be implemented. It always takes some time before the reforms approved in Sacramento become “real” to most parents in their everyday lives. Clearly, this finding means we have our work cut out for us in the upcoming months as we all try to achieve widespread awareness about the new LCFF and the opportunities (and necessity) for parents to be engaged. Informing and educating all parents about LCFF is a top priority for California State PTA. We also encourage school districts to work closely to involve parents in ways that make a difference. Here is a link to a more detailed commentary that we put out today about the survey and parent engagement —

  5. Paul Richman says:

    Thanks EdSource for the excellent survey data. The finding that 57 percent of parents are not yet aware of the new LCFF is not necessarily surprising, but it is a call to action. Significantly, the State Board of Education has not yet even approved the regulations for how the new law will be implemented. It always takes some time before the reforms approved in Sacramento become “real” to most parents in their everyday lives. Clearly, this finding means we have our work cut out for us in the upcoming months as we all to try to achieve widespread awareness about the new LCFF and the opportunities (and necessity) for parents to be engaged. Informing and educating all parents about LCFF is a top priority for California State PTA. We are working to make available a range of information, resources and training. We also encourage school districts to work closely to involve parents in ways that make a difference. Here is a link to a more detailed commentary that we put out today about the survey and parent engagement —

  6. Suz says:

    It will be interesting to see to what extent different districts really engage their parents. Some aren’t really interested at all in hearing from their community. Others presume that parents aren’t interested in policy and budget decisions or don’t have the context to engage meaningfully.

    LCFF presents a huge opportunity. I think two key pieces are parent education and budget transparency. The former is just not a district strength and might be better provided independently. What that might that look like? As for budgets, there was a good discussion in the comments here awhile back with some helpful suggestions floated by ‘el’ and ‘Navagio’.

    Rather than expecting (the few willing and able) parents to learn eduspeak and budget codes, are we at a place and time where we can demand that districts change their practices to truly incorporate community participation in programming and budget decisions? I sure hope so.

  7. Doctor J says:

    Sad but true: “Only a small group of parents are offered the opportunity to participate in school decision-making, while most are
    excluded.” The TRUTH is that administrators DON’T want parents involved in how to spend “their” money. Administrators have forgot that the money is “taxpayers” money, and does not belong to the Administrators to spend on their own toys like I-Pads, and not get the taxpayers money to the student level.

  8. Emmanuel says:

    This presents so many opportunities for authentic parent involvement in local decision making. And there are so many ways districts can fail to deliver on the intent of the law.

    I would love to see some grassroots parent education get underway. Very few districts are likely to spend the resources to really empower parents with the information they need to be invested partners. How many districts see it in their interest to train parents, to change how they present their budgets, to listen to new voices?

    There’s a small window for advocacy to get school districts to do this right. Who is leading that charge?

    Some of the things I’ve heard from our area and beyond include:
    Parents can only weigh in on the concentration and supplemental funds, not the base grants affecting all students.
    Only EL, low income and foster parents will be allowed to participate and their participation is limited to the additional funds for their students.
    This applies only to state funds; district staff will lock in how federal, property tax, and other local funds are spent before budgets are presented to parents.
    LCAP applies only to budget discussion not program (they’re actually intertwined).
    LCAP is another compliance measure. Parent meetings will be held just to check that box. Authentic participation is not on the table.
    Districts intend to harness parent input to lever negotiations with bargaining units.
    This year is a status quo year, so parent involvement is pro-forma and just a box to be checked.
    The handbooks for site council training will suffice for parent education.
    Parent input will be collected, but they will not be at the table with district leadership where decisions are made.
    District leaders will choose the parents they want to hear from — Site Council reps are recruited, not really elected (run unopposed, no one votes, etc.).

    1. Doctor J says:

      School boards say they allow parent participation: LIMIT is one minute. How ridiculous.

      1. el says:

        I believe that’s an issue of district policy and varies. In my district, it is three minutes. In practice, because meetings in my district are small and cordial, it is pretty easy to get an issue added to the agenda for longer discussion.

        Policy is there usually because of the possibility of hundreds of people showing up for a meeting and all wanting to speak. Logistically, one can see the problem. If you have that kind of outpouring of input, probably a meeting needs to be set up explicitly and specifically for a topic.

      2. CarolineSF says:

        Generally, all the speakers waiting, and all members of the public waiting for a later agenda item, are really, REALLY happy that there’s a time limit on the other speakers in the public comment period (normally two minutes in my district).

    2. el says:

      There is no question that some districts are not all that interested in authentic participation from parents.

      (I think we should also acknowledge that not all participation in the process is going to be positive.)

      But I think even for districts that are genuinely interested in doing right by parents for authentic involvement – it is hard. Caroline’s remarks at the top are right on point: families who are working full time (or worse, multiple part time jobs) and whose kids have an armload of homework have to make a significant sacrifice to make the meetings. Families may not want to come out after dark, in the cold.

      The suggestions for meals and child care are I think on point. Is that enough?

      What else can we do to make these efforts successful? What have people done with success?

      I was intrigued by the idea of meetings outside the school. I’d like to know more about that, and where they were. In my communities, the schools have always been the closest large meeting space.

      So let’s start with: “here are some authentic parent outreach programs that are successful; copy those and innovate” instead of “I don’t believe you’re even going to try and of course you’re just going to fake it”.

    3. Karen Swett says:

      I agree with all you’ve said. In Sac City we are making a grassroots effort to teach parents – schoolsite councils – how to read SACS reports. Learn how to read the required, standardized method of describing school site and district spending and become an informed decision-maker. SACS – Standardized Account Code Structure. It is easy once you get past a rather intensive learning hill. In Sac City we are teaching parents how to do this. ~

  9. Paul Muench says:

    I recommend EdSource Today to every parent I discuss schools with and I promote it on all of the online venues for my school and district. I would not know the full and accurate story about CA education without ET. And I’ve been to many years worth of school site council meetings, district advisory meetings, PTA meetings, and district parent education meetings. The fact that parents don’t know about LCFF and want to be involved in school decisions is not surprising, but it is worrisome. If parents really want to take greater responsibility for their schools I suggest they start with looking beyond their districts to educate themselves. If parents are only operating on information provided by their districts it would not be very surprising which way decisions would skew. I also strongly recommend reading the works of Dan Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia whose written two excellent and relevant books on education.

  10. CarolineSF says:

    I was an active, involved parent in San Francisco public schools from 1996 to 2012, volunteering through PTAs and Parents for Public Schools-San Francisco. Both organizations worked hard to try to get low-income and other less-visible parents involved. Providing child care and food helps — somewhat. One-off meetings, such as a special community meeting to address a crisis or allow parents to meet a new principal, were likely to attract parents who didn’t turn out for regular meetings. Informational meetings on topics such as college financial aid were somewhat better, though I noticed that the parents who really needed the information didn’t know they needed the information and didn’t come, sadly.

    I was working part-time from home for all those years. Right after my younger child went off to college, I went back to work full time. There is no possible way I could attend those meetings now; it simply would be logistically impossible. A family beset by the problems that go with poverty would find it even less possible. That’s a reality we need to face — there are exceptional, outlier cases, but generally the time, bandwidth, and ability to devote the energy and focus are luxuries reserved for the more-privileged.