State Board must find balance between rules and flexibility
August 13, 2013 | By John Fensterwald | 6 Comments
There was an abundance of thoughtful advice Monday at a public hearing in Sacramento on the state’s new school funding and accountability system. But that good advice also was rife with conflicting views, underscoring the challenge the State Board of Education will face in writing rules for the Local Control Funding Formula that took effect in June.
The new system shifts control over spending and budgeting from the state to districts, and it steers substantially more money to high-needs students: low-income children, foster youth and English learners. Those two goals are not inherently at odds, but there are tensions between children’s advocates who want to ensure all dollars targeted for children are spent on them and districts that worry about prescriptive regulations hampering their efforts to recover from five years of crippling budget cuts. There may also be tensions with parent groups that want the State Board not just to foster their participation in the districts’ budgeting process but to guarantee them an active role at both the district level and in their local schools.
Parents should be deeply involved, said Roberta Furger, associate director for policy at PICO California, a faith-based community organizing group, “not just to comment on an already developed plan but to help develop it.” There should be a rubric to measure that engagement in order to hold districts accountable, she said during her two-minute testimony. Added Peggy Parker, a state PTA district president, the State Board must decide how parents will be selected for a new district advisory committee and how outreach to parents should be handled.
The hearing, which also was webcast, was the second of three that the nonprofit public research and development agency WestEd organized on behalf of the State Board. Three dozen people testified on Monday; 60 spoke last week in Los Angeles, and the final hearing is today in Bakersfield.
Timeline for State Board action
In passing the Local Control Funding Formula, legislators wrestled with the same issues raised at the hearings. But with little agreement and running out of time to pass the state budget, they handed the job of spelling out specifics to the State Board, which is about to enter an intensive regulation-writing process.
By Jan. 31, it must determine how much latitude districts will have in using the extra money and to what extent they must involve parents. Then, by March 31, the State Board will detail what should be in every district’s Local Control Accountability Plan, setting district goals for academic achievement and the metrics to measure progress, such as dropout rates and access to college-qualifying courses. Spending in the district’s accountability plan should match those priorities.
Gov. Jerry Brown, who pushed the new finance system through the Legislature, has stressed the principle of “subsidiarity” – solving problems closest to where they exist. But that principle assumes that newly empowered school boards will listen to parents, teachers and the community. Districts will be judged on how subgroups of students, particularly English learners and low-income children, perform on a range of measures beyond standardized tests. But children’s advocates also want the money, which will bring districts with only high-needs children as much as two-thirds more dollars per student, to be tied to the students – and not simply trust districts to do right by them.
Must dollars follow the students?
At the hearing, Steve Ward, an associate superintendent of Clovis Unified recommended regulations that provide “local control for every need of every student without excessive bureaucracy and oversight.” He represents a coalition of districts that will receive less than average in extra money, because high-needs students comprise less than half of their enrollment. He urged the State Board to allow districts to use some of the money generated by targeted students for school or districtwide purposes, like equipping classrooms with technology to benefit all students.
But Liz Guillen, director of legislative and community affairs at Public Advocates, countered that the State Board should not allow districtwide uses for the targeted money “to create a loophole for unintended purposes.” Otherwise, that’s “gaming” the system. “Flexibility is not absolute.”
Michele Huntoon, the chief business officer of Stockton Unified, and Debbie Bettencourt, superintendent of Folsom Cordova Unified, urged wiggle room with the new class size reduction requirement, which sets a maximum of 24 students in a K-3 classroom by the time the formula is fully funded. If one school is a fraction of a student over, the district loses all of the money. Since there is no extra state money for facilities, there should be relief in the future, so that districts don’t have to cut staff or programs, Huntoon said.
Even though her district will do well under the formula, Sheri Gamba, associate superintendent of business for West Contra Costa Unified, called for “maximum flexibility” on spending. The district survived the recession through employee concessions and school closures, she said. How quickly it and other districts can restore employee pay may depend on how the State Board restricts spending on high-needs students.
But others called for added protections for high-needs students.
Randal Seriguchi, legislative analyst for Sacramento-based StudentsFirst, urged tight monitoring of how districts spend money for English learners and low-income students. Cynthia Rice, an attorney with California Rural Legal, called for quicker state response to formal parent and student complaints, which she and another speaker sharply criticized as ineffective. And Martha Zaragoza-Diaz, an advocate for English learners, said the state should set minimum standards, based on research, for spending on programs and services for English learners.
WestEd will forward comments from the hearings to the State Board. Additional comments can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.