Staff and members of the State Board of Education promised to revise proposed spending rules for the new school funding system after hearing speed testimonies Thursday from Californians from all corners of the state. The speakers disagreed on what they wanted but largely agreed they didn’t like some of what they saw.
Promising that the revision the State Board will vote on in January “will look different,” board member Sue Burr, who has worked closely on the proposed regulations, said, “This was a first shot, a draft. We are open to what you had to say today.”
There was no consensus on what the 188 speakers – school superintendents, executives of advocacy organizations, parents needing interpreters, high school students and teachers – had to say during the orderly but often impassioned one-minute testimonies that went on nearly five straight hours. But that was predictable.
The Local Control Funding Formula unknots the state-imposed rules that had restricted the use of K-12 dollars, directs more money to disadvantaged children and shifts control over spending to school districts. The tension between advocates for equity and defenders of flexibility was reflected in comments on proposed options for meeting the funding law’s key requirement – that districts provide additional programs and services for high-needs students in proportion to the additional revenue that the funding law allocates for them.
Superintendents and administrators, with few exceptions (see letter by Michael Hulsizer, chief deputy for government affairs for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools) praised the flexibility of allowing districts a choice of three options: spending more money on high-needs students; providing proportionally more services for them; or setting proportionally higher achievement goals and being held accountable for them, even if that doesn’t tie directly to more dollars for high-needs children.
“Outcomes are why we do the work we do. Outcomes should drive the accountability piece,” said Tim Stowe, chief academic officer of Torrance Unified. “We should have local flexibility that will allow us to use resources and target those who need assistance.”
But parents and advocates for low-income students are suspicious of not tying any goal directly to more money. They viewed that as an end-run around the law’s goal of giving more to students who need an extra boost.
“Don’t flex equity,” was the refrain of the day.
“Make sure money is spent on what it is meant for and not on another broken promise,” said a parent leader from San Bernardino.
Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus, told the State Board “it is important to understand that for many legislators, our support (of the funding law) was based on discussion and commitments that equity for students with greatest needs will be honored.”
But representatives of teachers and districts viewed the option of strictly spending more on high-needs students as focusing on bean counting while handcuffing districts that want latitude to shift money to districtwide purposes benefiting all students.
“It starts to feel too similar to where we were with restricted categorical funds,” said Greg Magnuson, superintendent of Buena Park School District in Orange County.
“We support efforts to protect local flexibility and resist attempts to reinstate restricted dollars,” said a representative of the California Teachers Association.
Disconnect between regs and accountability plan
The new funding law requires that districts create a three-year Local Control and Accountability Plan setting goals for meeting eight state priorities, including improving student achievement, addressing school climate, expanding access to programs and meeting goals of readiness for college and careers for all students as well as subgroups of high-needs students. Districts would have to show how they’d spend money to expand services to meet the goals.
But the proposed proportionality regulations, by creating separate options for achieving more, spending more and providing more services, failed to make clear connections with the accountability plan. That, several board members indicated after listening to the testimony, was probably a mistake.
“I don’t understand three options,” said board member Bruce Holaday. “It could help build trust to have one option: provide more services.” That’s what parents wanted to talk about at a meeting on the Local Control Funding Formula he attended in Oakland, he said, listing “after-school programs, more counselors, training sessions for parents on how to prepare children for college and careers.”
“It starts with services, then attach money and achievement,” he said.
Board member Trish Williams said, “Spending more doesn’t mean much if you haven’t gotten anything for it. You need to connect achievement goals to what you are choosing to spend money on; sometimes more is less effective than changing what you are doing through innovation.”
“Spending more is important,” responded board member Patricia Rucker. “But you are right; you can be busy doing a lot of things, but are they the right things?”
Not connecting spending and achieving in the regulations, Rucker said, led speakers to “draw lines in the sand.” It also stirred deep-seated suspicions, noted board member Carl Cohn, a retired superintendent.
“The testimony showed a lot about people over the years feeling they got a bad bargain on a whole host of promises about serving students,” he said. “There will not only be a challenge for us, but also ACSA and CSBA” – the Association of California School Administrators and the California School Boards Association, organizations representing school administrators and school boards – “will have to step up and make sure the climate will be one of transparency, inclusiveness and participation.”
Parent after parent, some having driven from Coachella Valley, San Bernardino and Los Angeles, urged the State Board to hold districts accountable for reaching out and listening to parents. Some had specific demands. Roberto Fonseca, a parent from Los Angeles Unified, said the board should require that parents be trained and given access to budget data. “You want people to understand how things operate at a school site? You must train them at the school site.”
Cynthia Rice, director of litigation, advocacy and training with California Rural Legal Assistance, called for a complaint process for parents who have been excluded from participating in the accountability plan.
Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill in September – Senate Bill 344, by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-San Fernando Valley – that laid out requirements for parent engagement, and board members have shown no intent to be prescriptive either. Draft guidelines for what will become a template for the Local Control and Accountability Plan listed issues that districts should address and questions they should answer but not specific requirements. But local control requires community engagement, board members indicated.
“We need to be clear about how transparency might look and feel,” Holaday said.
The law establishing the funding formula requires the State Board to adopt the spending regulations by Jan. 31 and the template for the local accountability plan by March 31. The board has indicated that it intends to approve both in January, leaving no meeting in between to review the next revision.
Board members took no vote, and, other than their wide-ranging discussion, gave no explicit instructions on specific revisions to staff and consultants from WestEd, the San Francisco-based education agency that drafted the proposals.
“We have provided some guidance,” Board President Michael Kirst said, hopefully. “I know you will sort through it correctly.”
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.