In a sign of a skirmish to come, leaders of 30 civil rights and nonprofit groups representing disadvantaged children are disputing a memo to the State Board of Education characterizing the purpose of the Local Control Funding Formula.
In a letter written Friday to State Board President Michael Kirst and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, the organizations issued essentially a shot over the bow in what is expected to be a contentious, closely watched debate over how new money that the formula allocates for low-income children, foster youth and English learners should be used. The organizations are worried that districts will be given too much latitude to spend new money as they choose. Instead, the letter said, the “fundamental civil rights and equity principles at the heart of the Local Control Funding Formula” should “remain front and center.”
The law creating the funding formula says districts should spend the extra money “proportionally,” based on the numbers of high-needs students enrolled, to increase programs and services for those students. The law also shifts authority for deciding how to spend education funding to local districts and removes most restrictions that Sacramento had imposed on the money.
The challenge will be “to balance maximum flexibility with maximum accountability,” the staff of the State Board acknowledged in a two-page memo that caught the advocates’ attention.
The memo was part of a larger update by staff of the State Board and the Department of Education prepared for the board’s meeting on Wednesday. The memo summarizes the concepts behind and important questions on the Local Control Funding Formula for the State Board to consider as it creates regulations. What upset the advocates was a short section summing up the intent of the law that cited two quotations by Gov. Jerry Brown, who authored the funding legislation, on local control.
One was from his news release when he signed the law; the other, from his State of the State speech, was his lengthy definition of the “principle of subsidiarity,” which Brown has often cited to explain the shift of government control from the state to local authorities most familiar with ground-level problems. It is, Brown said, “the idea that a central authority should only perform those tasks which cannot be performed at a more immediate or local level.”
What’s missing, the advocates’ letter says, are Brown’s quotes in which he says the purpose of the formula is to address funding inequities. The letter supplies several examples, including one from Brown’s budget summary.
This distinction is important because, when faced with two seemingly conflicting values, policy makers will decide by turning to the intent of the legislation, and the intent described in the memo is not balanced, said John Affeldt, managing attorney for Public Advocates, which took the lead in writing the advocates’ letter.
“This very short and one-sided view of the intent ignores the importance of equity,” Affeldt said. “I was dismayed to see the staff thinking about this narrowly and hope the board is not.” The groups signing the letter include two chapters of the ACLU, Californians for Justice, Education Trust-West, the California Association for Bilingual Education and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
How the State Board defines proportional spending and the limits of flexibility will have significant practical effects for districts, particularly in the next few years as they restore programs that have been cut since the recession and negotiate with teachers to restore pay increases. High-needs students – low-income children, foster youth and English learners – will generate an extra 20 percent funding per student, and more for districts in which they are highly concentrated. If the State Board grants a lot of latitude over spending decisions, then school boards could spend the extra money on districtwide programs, such as adding counselors to every school or granting training money to all teachers. If the State Board says that the extra money must be spent primarily on services for high-needs students, then pay incentives and larger staffs might be concentrated in schools with those children.
A lot will ride on the State Board’s word choice. By the end of January, the board must pass regulations spelling out how how the money under the formula can be used.
In an email on Tuesday, Judy Cias, chief counsel for the State Board, wrote that, in preparing the update, the staff selected “a broad representation of comments that the governor made over the six-month period from State of the State to the bill signing.”
“While I understand the sensitivity around this item,” Cias wrote, the focus of the Board’s discussion will be on the guiding principles and preliminary themes from information based on testimony and comments gathered at forums and meetings (see this section of the staff memo). The civil rights groups have participated in those gatherings, she observed.
The State Board’s discussion is item six on the agenda and will be webcast live.
John Fensterwald covers state education policy. Contact him or follow him @jfenster.