Advocates pile on criticisms of draft funding formula regulations

November 5, 2013
Kindergarteners in the Campbell Unified School District. Credit: Campbell Unified School District

Children’s advocates want to ensure that schools spend money equitably under the new Local Control Funding Formula. Credit: Campbell Unified School District

On the eve of a critical public hearing, key supporters of the Local Control Funding Formula are urging the State Board of Education to substantially change draft regulations instructing school districts on how to carry out important parts of the new law. The State Board will hold what’s expected to be a long and heated hearing on the proposals Thursday and then vote on the regulations in January.

The criticisms are made in two letters sent to State Board President Michael Kirst this week. Leaders of nearly 70 organizations focusing on children and education stated their “faith has been shaken” by proposals giving school districts too much control over how to spend supplemental funding for disadvantaged children. The three-page letter says that the State Board has steered away from the funding system’s promise, which Kirst and Gov. Jerry Brown also have expressed, of “a historic and transformative achievement that could fix the inequities we see every day in our districts and schools.”

The letter was signed by many of the community and civil rights groups that have been sparring for months with groups representing teachers, administrators, school boards and districts over tension between the funding law’s goals of providing both equity in funding and, as the law’s name indicates, local control over how money will be spent. Signers include Public Advocates, the ACLU, Education Trust-West and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. It was also signed by executives with the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, the California Endowment* and an organization representing businesses, the Bay Area Council.

Bay Area Council Vice President Linda Galliher also signed a second letter, more temperate in tone but equally critical of aspects of the draft regulations, with the signatures of the heads of the United Ways of California, the nonpartisan government reform organization California Forward and, most significantly, the president of Oakland-based Children Now, Ted Lempert. Lempert, a former assemblyman for San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, played a key role in navigating behind-the-scenes negotiations with Gov. Brown’s advisers, low-income advocacy groups and legislative leaders that smoothed the way for passage of the Local Control Funding Formula.

The draft regulations elaborate on a critical section of the funding law pertaining to the additional revenue that districts are receiving for high-needs students they enroll: foster youth, low-income children and English learners. It says districts must provide additional programs and services for these students in proportion to the increased money that these students generate.

The draft regulations were prepared for the State Board by WestEd, a San Francisco-based research and policy organization, after holding hearings and closed-door meetings with groups voicing a spectrum of views. They’re also in sync with Brown’s often stated position that school districts must have flexibility in deciding priorities and in steering money to school sites.

The regulations would give districts three options to satisfy the proportional spending requirement. They can spend more on high-needs students – the most direct and quantifiable option. They can provide proportionately more services. Or they can achieve more by setting and attaining proportionately higher student achievement goals.

Loopholes to avoid supplemental spending

The advocate groups argue giving districts three distinct options creates “a significant loophole” enabling districts to divert money intended for high-needs students. The “spend-more” and “provide-more” options should be tied together so that districts don’t end up spending “pennies on those dollars” for increased educational services.

And the “achieve-more” option “has no connection” to increasing services and creates the possibility that additional dollars could be spent “entirely on non-needy students, salaries, or central office expenditures without any real consequence.” There is a role for accounting for achievement, the groups said, but it should be part of the new Local Control and Accountability Plan, in which each district sets goals for all students – and specifically for high-needs students – and details how they’re going to achieve them. (Proposed guidelines and instructions to districts for writing their Local Control and Accountability Plans, or LCAPs, are also on Thursday’s agenda, and the advocates were highly critical of aspects of this proposal as well.)

Ted Lempert

Lempert and signers of the second letter don’t categorically rule out an achieve-more choice, but they said it should be at least several years – and several preconditions met – before the State Board introduces it. The state is shifting to new Common Core and science standards, with new standardized tests. Meanwhile, there aren’t any reliable state measures of achievement.

“This doesn’t provide an objective tool for the state to ensure that districts have achieved their end of the bargain related to flexibility,” the letter said. Until there is a new state assessment system and the State Board creates measures for holding districts accountable – metrics or rubrics that are due in the fall of 2015 – the State Board should hold off on this option, they said.

Writers of both letters agreed on another criticism: the lack of clarity about when money for high-needs students can be used for districtwide or schoolwide purposes. This is particularly relevant in those districts where high-needs students are concentrated in a group of schools, creating the possibility that “funding generated by students in low-income schools is transferred to higher wealth schools” and districtwide spending not related to high-needs students, the advocates said.

In a related criticism, the advocates said that the regulations should spell out the core services that districts should provide with the base grant that districts will get for all students and services for targeted high-needs students. Otherwise, districts “will be free to play an unfortunate shell game,” in which the base grant is spent disproportionately on wealthier students, they said.

The letter that Lempert signed warns the board that the failure to address weaknesses in the draft regulations “could jeopardize the long-term success of (the funding system) and will be detrimental to the confidence stakeholders, such as parents, community groups and business leaders, have in the system as a whole.”

The advocates were blunt. Implying that the State Board isn’t focused on the governor’s commitment to fix inequities, they wrote, “Leadership can survive many challenges but not the loss of faith in its veracity.”

*The California Endowment is one of EdSource’s funders but has no control over editorial decisions.

John Fensterwald covers state education policy. Contact him and follow him on Twitter @jfenster. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.  

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