California’s new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) signifies a welcome shift from the “no excuses” education “reform” crowd and their D.C. dominance. Contrary to Washingtonian rhetoric about addressing poverty by getting tough on bad teachers and closing bad schools, California proposes to address poverty by, well, addressing poverty.
Indeed, the LCFF reform shifts the conversation back to a focus on the extra resources and support that low-income students and English Learners need to succeed. And rather than shutting down low-performing schools first and asking questions later, LCFF proposes to send schools that have high concentrations of low-income students even more resources.
LCFF also pushes much more decision-making to the local level, rather than having policymakers decide how best to serve students. And when it comes to holding districts accountable for improving student achievement, LCFF signals a significant shift away from defining achievement solely along the lines of a standardized test score.
Instead, the new law calls for a new system based on a “holistic, multidimensional assessment” of districts’ and schools’ performance. It includes more than a dozen academic and school climate measures, including rates of graduation, student suspension and absenteeism, English learner reclassification rates, Advanced Placement course exam scores and percentages of students qualifying for admission to the University of California and California State University.
As Rick Simpson, deputy Chief of Staff to Assembly Speaker John Pérez and a longtime key education policy staffer, told EdSource Today, “We are unconvinced that market-based approaches, sanctions and threats are the way to change systems.”
Whether this new vision of local control will actually be realized — and whether it will be realized in a way that works to improve student outcomes — remain huge questions. The premise of LCFF is that more resources should flow to the neediest students, and that decisions on how to use those funds are best made by people most familiar with those students’ circumstances. In fact, the governor in his January State of the State address argued that local control should extend beyond the school board and district office — and even beyond the principal — down into the classroom where the individual teacher, who is most familiar with his or her students, works.
To make that vision happen, and include the students and their parents in the decision-making, will require a serious reordering and rejuvenation of what local control and community engagement mean. Districts must provide clear, transparent, simple-to-understand and standardized explanations of how much LCFF spending is occurring at each school and how it is proposed to be used, particularly with high-needs students. Parents, students, interested community members and teachers must have a role in determining how to best spend those funds at the school site as well as across the district. And before those structural mechanisms can be implemented, key rules need to be written that make clear that LCFF funding generated by low-income students, English learners and foster youth must actually be spent on those students.
Unfortunately, the state Legislature and the Administration spent so much time these past two years arm-wrestling over whether and how LCFF would be considered (would it be through policy committees or how it ended up, in the budget) that when a deal finally became clear, there was no time to negotiate many of the most important provisions. So now the State Board of Education has been called on to do the heavy lifting. (While a convenient political solution in the short run, that may come back to haunt Brown and the Democrats if future State Boards and governors water down LCFF and its focus on high-needs students.)
Over the next eight months, and again in October 2015, the Board faces a number of key decisions that will shape the effectiveness of LCFF local control and accountability:
- What does it mean to spend LCFF funds to increase or improve services proportionally on high-needs students?
- What will be permissible school-wide and district-wide uses of LCFF funds generated by high-needs students when not all the students in the school or district are high-need?
- How clear do districts’ Local Control and Accountability Plans need to be to make sure that expenditures aligned with specific activities are spelled out at the school level for parents, teachers and the school community?
- What kind of notice, engagement and public hearings must districts undertake to satisfy LCFF requirements?
- And eventually, by October 2015, what are the “holistic, multi-dimensional” evaluation rubrics that determine when districts are to receive technical assistance or intervention or even be placed in trusteeship?
The State Board has its work cut out for it if it is to complete this latest swing away from top-heavy, market-based reforms that fail to recognize the need for systemic anti-poverty investments and toward a new system that both invests in the neediest students and bases educational decisions on the best information at the most local level possible. Community advocates, the education community, the Legislature and—you can be sure — Washington, will be watching.
John Affeldt is Managing Attorney at Public Advocates Inc., a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization that challenges the systemic causes of poverty and racial discrimination, and is a leading voice on educational equity issues. He has been recognized by California Lawyer Magazine as a California Attorney of the Year.