Every one of California’s 50 largest school districts has committed to reducing the number of students sent home for behavioral infractions. But two years into a state requirement that districts let parents evaluate the path of progress, most of those 50 districts have not set specific suspension goals nor provided comparison rates that would allow parents to see if improvement is happening, according to a report released Thursday.
Parent and community involvement is the philosophical backbone of the education finance system introduced in 2013, known as the Local Control Funding Formula, that shifts spending decisions from the state to local districts. In exchange, districts are required to create three-year Local Control and Accountability Plans, starting in 2014-15, to show exactly how much they are spending to drive improvements, including reducing suspensions and expulsions, and whether those investments have been effective.
But most districts aren’t providing enough information to gauge progress on the state requirement that districts make school climate a priority, according to the report from Fight Crime: Invest in Kids California, which analyzed the second year of the spending plans in the largest school districts. The group is a state office of a national nonprofit organization of law enforcement officers and prosecutors.
“Districts must do a better job and parents must stay engaged,” said Patty Scripter, chair of the California State PTA’s Local Control Funding Formula task force. “It’s critical for parents to ask those follow-up questions, to go to the district and say ‘We made this a priority and we can’t find where you proved that.'”
According to the state funding formula, districts must report how their goals, actions and expenditures are improving school climate, including “specific and measurable” goals for suspension and expulsion rates, as well as surveys to track improvement in a “sense of safety and connectedness” at school among students, parents and teachers.
But fewer than half of the largest districts reported suspension data from 2014-15 in their 2015-16 report, making it impossible to assess from the report what progress districts are making toward their goals or what changes need to be made, said Brian Lee, state director of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids California. (To see the findings for each district, click here.) His group focuses on school discipline policies, he said, because students who are suspended or expelled are more likely to get behind in schoolwork, drop out and become involved in criminal activity.
Further, many districts had “ambiguous” goals for reducing suspension rates, such as stating a goal of a 5 percent reduction but not being clear about whether that means reducing suspensions by 5 percent a year or 5 percent overall in the three-year period, Lee said. And nearly two-thirds of the largest districts did not adjust their suspension reduction goals according to subgroups of students, which would allow a district, for instance, to set more ambitious suspension reduction goals for African-American students, who typically are suspended far more frequently.
“Districts must do a better job and parents must stay engaged,” said Patty Scripter of the California State PTA.
“The whole point of these district plans is to provide that level of detail,” Lee said.
The report found an increasing commitment to strategies to improve the way students and teachers interact, including a data-driven approach known as “Schoolwide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports,” a framework that guides the use of research-based practices and offers increasing levels of behavioral management and support. More investments were made for restorative justice programs, which offer a format for students to make amends and repair relationships with those they have harmed, and social and emotional skill-building approaches.
Some districts mentioned plans to implement new approaches, but had no corresponding budget allocation, the report found. But Lee said a few districts stood out as models for others.
Among them is Stockton Unified, which specified in its plan that it would continue to invest in positive supports for students, including $105,000 for a classroom management trainer, $25,000 for training for school sites, $100,000 for curriculum, $15,000 for progress monitoring, and more. Irvine Unified was credited for setting a goal to increase the number of schools that achieve an 80 percent score in the positive behavior system assessment.
While there is more progress needed, Lee said, “let’s not forget how far we’ve come.”
School suspension rates in California have fallen by 25 percent over the last two years, he noted, driven in part by the funding formula’s requirement that schools pay attention to discipline practices. Districts are increasingly investing in positive discipline approaches that emphasize building relationships with troubled students or allowing them to make amends, rather than taking more punitive actions, Lee said.
As the State Board of Education works to create an accountability system for the funding formula, Lee asked that the board include suspension rates as a key indicator of how districts are doing. “We want the state board to make sure suspension rates stay at the forefront,” he said.