Proposed spending regs give districts leeway to choose how to serve high-needs students
October 28, 2013 | By John Fensterwald | 10 Comments
Much anticipated draft regulations that the State Board of Education will discuss next week would give school districts lots of latitude – too much so, say some advocates for disadvantaged students – to deal with a contentious issue: how to account for the extra money that districts will receive for low-income kids, English learners and foster children.
The proposed regulations (see pages 1-4), posted in the agenda for the Nov. 6-7 State Board meeting, interpret a critical section in the law establishing the Local Control Funding Formula. Broad in intent and short in length, it requires school districts, county offices of education and charter schools “to increase or improve services” for high-needs students “in proportion to the increase in funds apportioned on the basis of the number and concentration” of those students. The board must adopt the regulations at its next meeting in January to meet a deadline imposed by the funding law.
The new funding system provides additional dollars for low-income children and English learners: 20 percent more funding per targeted student plus additional dollars when a district has large concentrations of those students. Advocacy organizations for low-income students had argued that the extra dollars should be spent on programs for those students at the schools they attend. But they lost that fight. At Gov. Jerry Brown’s insistence, the money for high-needs students will be distributed to districts, not to school sites. And the law did not explicitly require that all of the additional money be spent exclusively on those students. Instead, the law requires that services or programs be increased proportionally to the increase in funding – an important distinction that gives districts more flexibility to decide how the money will be spent – which was also Brown’s intent.
Charged with writing regulations detailing what proportionality means, the State Board turned to WestEd, a San Francisco-based research agency, to make recommendations after soliciting a range of opinions. WestEd held regional meetings and created a stakeholders group that included representatives of advocacy organizations and groups representing school boards, teachers, administrators and county offices of education.
A choice of three options
The proposed regulations say that districts would have three ways to satisfy the requirement of providing increased services or programs. They can spend more, provide more or achieve more in proportion to the extra money they get:
- Spending more: That’s the easiest to quantify and verify. A district would determine the proportion of the increase in annual revenue under the new formula that is attributable to high-needs students. At full implementation of the funding formula – in eight years if projections of revenue hold – the district would have to spend at least that much, or more, on high-needs students.
- Providing more: The draft proposal cites possible ways that districts could provide more services in proportion to the increase in funding for targeted students. They could add learning time through summer or after-school programs; add intervention programs or instructional aides, or reduce class sizes for these students; offer more teacher training focused on these students; or provide extra materials or technology to meet their needs.
- Achieving more: Districts would have to document improved outcomes of targeted students in proportion to the increase in funding. The draft doesn’t state it, but the result presumably would begin to close the achievement gap between high-needs and non-high-needs students.
Heads of two nonprofits advocating for low-income students and English learners criticized the draft, particularly the achieve-more option, which they said skirts the intent of the spending formula.
“We’re very disappointed with the regulatory proposal in its current form. The State Board is moving to change by regulatory fiat the promise that equity will somehow result from total district flexibility,” said John Affeldt, managing attorney for Public Advocates.
Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Education Trust-West, called WestEd’s proposal “incoherent” and said that districts could provide small increases in some services that have no relation to the actual amount of money that districts receive for high-needs students. And he said that districts could strive for increases in readily attainable goals for student achievement, yet high-needs students could continue to be underserved. The options for providing and achieving more have to be tied directly to spending; otherwise, budgeting won’t be transparent, he said.
The draft regulations don’t specify how to quantify what “proportional increase” means for the “providing more” and “achieving more” options – no doubt by intent. Annual increases attributable to high-needs students could be a few percentage points. Brown and State Board members have indicated they don’t intend to micromanage districts’ plans and goals.
Districts, charter schools and county offices would use the regulations as a basis for creating their Local Control and Accountability Plan, or LCAP, a three-year plan, updated annually, that they must adopt by the start of the next fiscal year on July 1.
The draft regulations pertain to spending money. The LCAP is about setting goals and actions to improve student performance. Because the two are inextricably linked, the proposal, which the State Board will discuss, includes a document outlining the guiding principles and key elements (see pages 5-9) that would instruct a district in writing its LCAP. The State Board must approve an actual template that districts would use no later than March 31, 2014.
Sherry Griffith, director of Government Relations for the Association of California School Administrators, praised the discretion that the three options will give districts. “The options reflect that fact that it’s not always about spending another dollar. Actions may involve instructional strategies, reorganizing classrooms or eliminating what hasn’t proven effective. We think the three are more reflective of a more holistic approach” to school and student improvement.
Griffith said that districts would want to integrate all three options in writing an LCAP and that simply setting a goal of achievement alone would not be enough to meet the requirements. That would appear to be the case, based on the principles and guidelines to the LCAP that WestEd released. Districts would be required to justify the services and programs they are proposing for all students and subgroups of students getting extra money, explain why they would be effective and cite the expenses involved. They would be required to explain how the budget for the Local Control Funding Formula is used “to support student performance and address needs of special populations. This should be simple yet complete.”
The guidelines for the LCAP would not require listing goals and additional services by schools – another criticism of Affeldt and Ramanathan, since quality and needs of schools vary significantly in large districts. Instead, the guidelines simply ask whether the needs of students at specific schools have been identified and if goals for specific schools have been included.
Griffith said it comes down to “How much are we afraid of local control?” Trust will be built, she said, “if the LCAP process is transparent and stakeholders feel empowered.”
But Affeldt and Ramanathan said that regulations must be tightened for the public to trust that money intended for high-needs students will be spent on them. Guidelines and principles are not sufficient to ensure equity.
The debate over the next two weeks will determine how the State Board strikes a balance between those perspectives.
John Fensterwald covers state education policy. Contact him and follow him on Twitter @jfenster.