Brown details how to hold districts accountable under funding reform

February 5, 2013

Responding to criticism that he is offering flexibility without accountability, Gov. Jerry Brown has offered up specifics on how he would hold school districts responsible for extra money he is proposing to give them for high-needs children under his proposed sweeping reforms of how California schools are funded.

Under his plan:

Brown included the seven-page framework in a much-anticipated 154-page education “trailer bill” that he released on Friday (see pages 110-116 under section 308: Local Control Funding Formula). A trailer bill is supplementary legislation that lists  changes in statutes needed to implement the state budget. Although trailer bills are intended to be technical fixes of the law, recent governors have inserted major policy initiatives, like Brown’s “local control funding formula,” into trailer bills in an effort to shortcut the legislative process.

Brown is proposing to relax most controls over state K-12 funding. He would redistribute a portion of the money based on a formula giving a third more per high-needs student and extra money on top of that that for districts with high concentrations of those students.

His initial proposal last year didn’t include requirements to track how that extra money would be spent; he said the plan would come later. That was one reason some advocates for funding reform withheld their support. Meetings in November and since then between his aides and advocates for minority children produced the latest plan. Three heads of children’s advocacy groups said this week that they were encouraged by what they read.

“The administration has been very responsive,” said Ted Lempert, president of Oakland-based Children Now, who has represented some of the advocates in discussion with Brown’s advisers. “There needs to be a balance between the governor’s focus on flexibility and assurances that are strong enough to see that money gets to the kids intended.”

“We need more detail, but in general, we see positive elements so far,” said Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Education Trust-West, also based in Oakland. He praised the requirement that a district’s budget be tied to the plan for student achievement and the commitment to parental involvement in the plan’s development, whether by strengthening the local school site councils or by creating new advisory panels. The county superintendent’s authority to act, once an accountability plan’s flaws have been identified, needs to be clarified, he said.

“There’s a lot in there to like,” agreed John Affeldt, managing attorney at Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm that has sued the state over low levels of funding for high-needs students. “The governor listened to us about wanting more specific plans for student achievement.”

County offices of education already oversee school districts’ budgets and finances and they monitor districts under the 2004 settlement of the lawsuit in the Williams v State of California case to see that low-income schools have textbooks, qualified teachers and adequate facilities. So the approval of the districts’ accountability plans would be an extension of their existing oversight responsibilities.

However, the requirements of the Williams settlement are not comparable to Brown’s intent, said State Board of Education President Michael Kirst, who’s also a close adviser to Brown. The Williams settlement is very prescriptive, with detailed checklists and a process for legal recourse for lack of compliance. Brown is proposing a shift in control from the state with deference to local officials on how money for targeted students should be spent, Kirst said, in keeping with Brown’s oft-cited “principle of subsidiarity”.

Kirst said he doesn’t know what the State Board will eventually require of districts under Brown’s plan, but there would be extensive opportunity for public suggestions under the months-long process for adopting regulations. The Jan. 1, 2014 timeline for the State Board to complete the regulations under the trailer bill assumes that the Legislature would pass finance reform as part of the budget by July 1 this year.

Elements in a district’s accountability plan

The trailer bill put forward by Brown does, however, list some specific requirements that a district’s accountability plan must address. The district would have to identify goals and actions that districts would have to take to:

Ed Trust-West and Public Advocates have called for tracking supplementary dollars to the school level to ensure funding isn’t diverted elsewhere or for other less needy students. They support having more decisions made at the school site level. Ramanathan said he’s disappointed that Brown’s principle of subsidiarity ends at the school district’s central office rather than at the school level. Affeldt said there needs to be more transparency on how dollars will flow to the school site.

Kirst said he doesn’t envision requiring separate accountability plans for each school, although districts could require them on their own if that’s what their communities want.

Affeldt added one more concern. Under the transition period leading to full funding of the Local Control Funding Formula – a period of seven to 10 years –  districts would have to account only for spending levels for targeted groups as of 2012-13. Meanwhile, they’ll be gradually getting more money for targeted groups each year, Affeldt said.

Lempert said that discussions regarding Brown’s plans are continuing. He expects the final bill will include additional accountability language, though he wouldn’t predict what that might be.

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