School funding reforms spark push to get parent input
March 20, 2014 | By Louis Freedberg and Alex Gronke | 16 Comments
California’s new school funding law has sparked a major push to get input from parents, at least in most school districts being tracked by EdSource in diverse parts of the state.
Those districts have held – or plan to hold over the next few weeks – public forums that go significantly beyond what is prescribed in the law and its central feature, the Local Control Funding Formula. The funding formula targets additional funds to districts based on the number of low-income students, English learners and foster children attending their schools.
California State PTA President Colleen You said her organization is “very encouraged” by what has occurred so far, although she said that across the state, efforts by school districts to engage parents has been “uneven.” “One of the keys will be to see what happens when districts start sharing the drafts of their accountability plans,” she said. “Until then it is speculative to know whether it will make a difference.”
Under the law, districts are required to draw up a Local Control and Accountability Plan by July 1. What is less clear is how the input districts are receiving will shape those plans and influence how districts decide to spend the extra money they will get.
“My hope is that the meetings are meaningful and that we are in fact embarking on a new era of parent and community participation in California,” said Arun Ramanathan, executive director of the Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based advocacy organization. “But the big question – and what will make the meetings meaningful – is whether a district’s budget process reflects what goes on in those meetings.”
EdSource Today is following the implementation of the Local Control Funding Formula in six districts, which were chosen based on their geographic diversity, size and grade levels they serve. All have large numbers of the “high-needs” students the law is intended to help. Together, the districts serve about 305,000 students, or about 5 percent of all public school students in the state.
The new law requires districts to get written parental input as they prepare their accountability plans, which must lay out how schools will improve student performance in numerous “priority areas” – from test scores and implementation of the Common Core standards to more abstract goals such as “school climate” and “student engagement” – as well as how they intend to spend state funds to achieve them.
The law specifically mandates that districts consult with parent advisory committees. Districts must also hold at least one public hearing to get input from parents, and hold another when their accountability plans are adopted.
While most of the districts being tracked by EdSource have held multiple public workshops and meetings, there is a considerable range in how many have been held and what districts have done to maximize participation. Some have provided child care and language translations, and offered meetings at different times to better fit parents’ schedules. Some districts have concluded their information gathering process. Others are just starting to get public input.
The San Diego Unified School District, with over 130,000 students, is the state’s second-largest district after the Los Angeles Unified School District. San Diego Unified is hosting 16 “LCAP workshops” in March and April at different schools in each of the district’s 16 newly created “clusters,” which consist of a high school, and the middle and elementary schools feeding students into it. All meetings are scheduled to start at various times on weekday evenings – ranging from 4:30 to 7 p.m.
At the first workshop on March 10, a total of about 30 participants – consisting of district staff and parents – gathered at round tables in the library of San Diego High School for a PowerPoint presentation and discussion of the accountability plan. In small groups, they looked at how the district’s Vision 20/20 strategic plan meshed with “priority areas” schools are expected to focus on under the new law. The proceedings were translated into Spanish using wireless headphones.
In addition to these meetings, district Superintendent Cindy Marten, a former principal who was the surprise choice to take over the district’s top post last July, has been hosting a series of public forums to introduce the district’s strategic plan, and to get input into the Local Control Funding Formula.
The Santa Ana Unified School District, with over 57,000 students, plans to hold 25 “parent and community input sessions” in March and the first three weeks of April. Superintendent Rick Miller said the district is intentionally hosting a large number of meetings because they offer more opportunities for parents to attend. It also means that each gathering has fewer attendees, and gives participants a better chance to be heard. “We wanted to keep the group size small so that people can actually talk,” said Miller, who came to Santa Ana last November after four years at the Riverside Unified School District in the top post there.
With an enrollment of about 54,000 students, the San Bernardino City Unified School District is also in the midst of holding “Local Control and Accountability Plan Meetings.” It held one in February and one in March, with another coming up next week.
The two-hour meetings are being held in the late afternoon. One of the meetings was held primarily in Spanish, and child care is being provided at each.
The West Contra Costa Unified School District, with just over 30,000 students, has held six community meetings – five in January and one in February – at different schools. Each meeting was held between 6:30 and 8 p.m. Child care and Spanish translations were provided. Each one drew about 100 participants, according to school board member Madeline Kronenberg, who attended five of the six meetings.
The last of the meetings was held at Hercules High School between 6:30 and 8 p.m. on Feb. 6. Superintendent Bruce Harter gave a PowerPoint presentation about the district’s financial status, and what it stands to gain under the Local Control Funding Formula (about $6.2 million this year).
Participants then broke into smaller groups and drew up a long list of priorities for the new funds (which can be found online on the district’s website). The dozens of proposals ranged from extending the school day and smaller class sizes to mentorship programs and having school psychologists based at schools.
The Merced City School District, an elementary district with just over 10,000 students, has held four meetings, titled “Budget Open Forum Workshops,” in February and March. The meetings, which were held at different schools on Wednesday afternoons between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m., helped introduce parents to the new funding formula. The flyer advertising the workshops explained that they were “part of the district’s and board of education’s budget development transparency process.”
Each meeting drew between 50 and 100 participants, according to Superintendent RoseMary Parga Duran. To communicate effectively with parents, many of whom are farm workers, translations were provided in both Spanish and Hmong.
Parga Duran said that after several years of community forums where budget cuts were the main topic of conversation, it has been a welcome departure to discuss with parents how additional funds coming to the district should be spent. “We aren’t talking about what to cut,” she said. “We are building, we are talking about what should we put back.”
Districts are using different approaches to attract as much parent input as possible. Santa Ana Unified, for example, is holding its meetings at different times of the day – 8:15 a.m., 9 a.m. or 6 p.m. – to allow parents with different work schedules to attend. Two sessions will be held on Saturdays and are “open to all employees, parents and community members.” Child care will be provided. The district has also prepared informational materials in Spanish and Vietnamese. The district is also encouraging online input through its “Eye on Learning” website page.
believe school districts may need to do more to reach beyond those parents who have traditionally been involved in schools.
“It is great that all this is going on, but districts are going to have to work to implement the full intent of the law, so that it is not just a small number of folks on a required committee that are involved,” said Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, an Oakland-based organization that has been a leading advocate of the new law. “A larger segment of the community must feel they were heard.”
That will not be easily accomplished, said Sharon Sadrudeen, who has two children in the San Bernardino school district. She attended one parent meeting on the funding law, and this week she got a call from the district reminding her about the next one. “I was impressed,” she said. Although she thinks the district is doing a reasonably good job informing parents about the new law, she would like to see more African-American parents like herself participating. “I am not seeing the involvement that should be there,” Sadrudeen said.
The only district among the six that EdSource is tracking that has not held meetings or forums specifically to address the Local Control and Funding Formula is the 24,000-student East Side Union High School District in San Jose. But Superintendent Chris Funk points out that the district launched a major outreach effort during the 2012-13 school year, holding two dozen “community conversations” with parents and others, including at least one meeting at each of its 12 high schools.
That effort produced revisions of the district’s strategic plan that Funk says align well with the requirements of the new funding law. In January, the district also released a survey of school personnel, students and parents on what its budget priorities should be.
The district is notably one of the few in the state with a draft of its Local Control and Accountability Plan. Funk has formally moved to implement what is explicitly spelled out in the law – getting the input of the districts’ parents, teachers and students. The draft plan was discussed this week at a joint meeting of the District Advisory Committee – consisting of a parent and a teacher from each school site council – and the District English Learner Advisory Committee.
Like East Side Unified, the next phase for other districts will be to involve their parent committees as they race towards the June 30 deadline to come up with their accountability plans. Education Trust-West’s Ramanathan hopes that at least some of the input that districts have received so far in parent and community forums will be reflected in their plans and the budgets they ultimately adopt. “Otherwise people will feel let down,” he said.
This report is part of EdSource’s Following the School Funding Formula project, tracking the implementation of the Local Control Funding Formula in selected school districts around the state.