The current Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) legislation pending before the Legislature utterly fails to reach any of the key reform goals that Gov. Jerry Brown and his advisers articulated. The bill presents the Legislature and governor with a stark choice.
The key goals of LCFF, as articulated by the governor’s astute adviser Mike Kirst and his colleagues in a seminal paper, were as follows:
- Allocate Revenue Based on Needs. Though the bill would direct substantial funding toward districts serving high proportions of English learners and low-income students, much of the allocation is driven by the quirks of California’s gerrymandered school district boundaries. Students with identical needs and living on opposite sides of the same street can be funded at dramatically different rates – simply because the school district boundary line falls in the middle of their street. Worse yet, the LCFF continues three huge categorical programs that are widely recognized to be the most grossly inequitable of all of California’s categorical funding programs. These include Home-to-School Transportation (where funding rates are based decades-old entitlement data), Targeted Instructional Improvement Grants (“pork” funding that give some districts $1,000 per student and others none), and Special Education (with per-student rates ranging from less than $450 per student to nearly $1,000 for no good reason). LCFF also continues to allow property-rich “Basic Aid” districts to continue to receive massive sums of above-the-formula funds – reaching to the tens of thousands of dollars per students in some instances.
- Adjust for Regional Cost Differences. The LCFF makes no allowance here. Arguably, it never should have, so no major loss here.
- Transparency and Simplicity. While the core elements of the LCFF formula are straightforward, the system created by the 226-page legislation is a model of complexity and opacity. The transition period to the new system is painfully long – the reform equivalent of pulling off a Band-Aid in slow motion over an eight-year period – and includes a mishmash of (1) base, (2) transition, (3) “economic recovery,” and (4) hold-harmless formulae. Already, a cottage industry of consultants are selling “LCFF Calculator” services to help schools and districts to guesstimate their funding under the new, volatile system. Even the California Department of Education, the keeper of key funding and entitlement data, needed a private grant to begin its simulations.Though LCFF will do away with a few dozen state-funded categorical programs along with their wasteful application and compliance rules, the new system could easily be worse. It replaces the categorical funding rules with a complex set of new “accountability” requirements and grades K-3 class size reduction targets. The legislation articulates dozens of “state priorities” that local school officials must now address in written school and district accountability plans developed through lengthy consultation and adoption processes. LCFF also calls for the State Board to develop regulations to supposedly ensure that the extra funds for English learners and low-income students are spent to their benefit. The new laws, however, specify that districts can throw these extra funds into “districtwide” pools based on loose federal rules for “schoolwide” plans. Decades of experience with such plans demonstrates that they provide huge loopholes – and LCFF’s extending these from the schoolwide to the districtwide level will ensure little or no transparency or accountability. They are no match for the powerful suction of the labor bargaining table. In short, the LCFF is remarkably complex, replaces existing categorical rules with even more burdensome pseudo-accountability requirements, yet assures no real accountability.
The governor and his advisers deserve kudos for trying to accommodate many of California’s influential education interest groups and for attempting to keep the process transparent – at least until the last week when extensive changes were made behind closed doors and without public discussion. The resulting LCFF proposals, unfortunately, are worse than the current system because they lend the false impression of a significant improvement. The Legislature should reject it. If not, Governor Brown should simply come clean, admit the failure, and veto the LCFF legislation if it hits his desk. If not, this bungled pseudo-reform will prove a major stain on an otherwise increasingly-impressive track record.
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Eric Premack is executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center, a leading charter school support and advocacy organization he founded in 1993. Premack previously worked for School Services of California, Inc., and the Office of the Legislative Analyst.