Parents push for more prominent place at the school budget table

November 1, 2013
parent and kids school success

Kern County parents participate in an informational forum on the new state financing law organized by The California Endowment during its School Success Express bus tour.

Four months into the rollout of the new state education funding law, parent leaders across California are trying to ensure that “local control” over school spending truly includes parents.

The law, known as the Local Control Funding Formula, is a landmark shift that gives school districts more control over spending decisions that had previously been mandated by the state, and outlines eight key priorities that districts must consider when allocating their resources. One of those new priorities is parent involvement, and implementation of the law begins with the requirement that districts engage parents in crafting budgets.

Education advocates are crisscrossing the state to inform parents of their newly important role as collaborators and watchdogs. The most expansive effort is a 12-city bus tour organized by the Los Angeles-based health foundation The California Endowment, called the School Success Express, consisting of community meetings from Del Norte to San Diego, attended by parents, students, teachers, school officials and education advocates. Meals are provided, along with Spanish translations, free T-shirts and transportation if needed. Feedback collected in the sessions will be sent to the State Board of Education, which is crafting regulations for implementing the law.

Such efforts are seen as essential to the success of the new funding formula by one of its architects.

“I would turn the challenge over to parents and say, you can’t just expect it to happen as a result of a state law,” said State Board of Education President Michael Kirst. “You’ve got to get out there and get involved.”

Setting priorities

The cornerstone of the law is a spending roadmap, known as a  Local Control and Accountability Plan, that school districts must draw up to outline how their budgets align with state and local education priorities. To involve parents in preparing the budget, the law requires districts to hold a public meeting, make a presentation to a district-level parent advisory committee and, if applicable, make a presentation to an English Learner parent advisory committee. Districts must also prepare a written response to any comments submitted by the committees and approve the plan at a second public hearing.

Before the district budget can be authorized, the district superintendent or the county office of education must approve the local accountability plan, including the district’s parent involvement efforts.

As the process of creating local budgets inches forward, parents and advocates are hopeful that the new law will give them a stronger voice, but concerned that the requirements for parent engagement don’t go far enough.

For example, the law allows districts to use familiar, and not always successful, methods of bringing parents into the conversation, such as parent committees and feedback at public meetings, notes Oscar Cruz, president of the Los Angeles-based Families in Schools, which works to increase parent participation.

“Having a public forum is nothing new, but the problem is it’s never been effective,” Cruz said. “Family engagement is about changing the culture of schools, about how schools interact day to day with families.”

The law requires districts to report “efforts to seek parent input” and efforts to “promote parent participation” – measures that are too vague to be meaningful, Cruz said.

To press the State Board of Education, Families in Schools sent a list of indicators they say are an effective way to measure parental involvement, such as whether schools provide professional development to staff on how to welcome and engage families, and whether schools train parent advisory committee members on the budget process. This kind of parent involvement, Cruz said, is also included in the state education priority called “school climate,” which is measured in part by surveys of students, parents and teachers on their sense of safety and school connectedness.

Other parent organizations and education advocates also have lobbied the state board through phone calls and videos from parents emphasizing the need for strong regulations to ensure parent voices are heard.

‘Critical’ input

But the draft regulations on how districts should move forward, released this week from the state board, have disappointed advocates, including Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Oakland-based Education Trust-West, which advocates for underserved students. He says the regulations lack important detail about procedures, such as how parent committees will be formed. The state board will meet next week to discuss the draft regulations.

Parents attend a School Success Express community forum in Lamont on the new funding law. Credit: California Endowment, via Twitter

“The law would give parents a greater voice, if the law was accompanied by the regulations necessary,”  Ramanathan said. But the board has not done that yet, he said. “The state board is saying to districts, do whatever you want.” He added, “How do you have local control without real public engagement from local stakeholders?”

The draft regulations reiterate that engagement of parents is “critical” to the process. The draft asks districts to address two “guiding questions”: How have parents and others been involved in developing local budgets? and How has the involvement of parents supported improved outcomes for students?

The state board expects districts to take parent involvement seriously, said Elisa Wynne, project manager of the Local Control Funding Formula for the board. “The intent is not to have people check off the boxes,” she said.

Still, she acknowledged, the draft regulations give districts considerable leeway to develop their own standards for parental involvement, in keeping with the spirit of the law. “This is local flexibility and local control,” she said.

In these early months of implementation of the law, much remains unclear about how districts will move forward.

Lisa Berlanga, executive director of San Diego United Parents for Education, a parent organization, said her group is trying to find out who, exactly, is going to be on the parent advisory committees that will review the district’s local accountability plan. Under the law, districts may use existing parent advisory committees to review the local plans, which must be completed by July 1, 2014.

“Parents have to demand that as this new system rolls out, they are part of developing very specific plans that state, ‘We are spending this amount of money, for this school, and for this program, and these are the results,’” she said.

Training parents

Some parent organizations are using the new law as an opportunity to educate and engage parents, by staffing booths at street fairs, sending email blasts and showing PowerPoint presentations at parent meetings. The California State PTA has made the rollout of the new law its top issue.

Oakland-based Bay Area Parent Leadership Action Network, founded in 2004 to train parent leaders, has coached 50 parents in the details of the new law and trained them in public speaking.

Among those trained was Oakland parent Rukiya Humphries, who was named this fall to the school site council at the elementary school her nephew, niece and God-daughter attend. “It brought the leader out in me,” Humphries said. She intends to lobby the district and school board for additional aides in the classroom and updated physical education equipment.

In November, Educate Our State, a San Francisco-based statewide parents organization, is hosting Camp Educate, a weekend workshop in Los Angeles to teach more than 100 parents how to read budgets and “how to suss out what’s really happening here,” said Hope Salzer, an Educate Our State board member.

And the School Success Express tour has drawn more than 900 parents, students, community members and administrators to its first seven stops, according to tour sponsor, The California Endowment. At the events, hundreds of parents and students have picked up a microphone and shared their ideas about what schools should spend money on. Notes from the brainstorming sessions and video comments from parents and students have been sent to the State Board of Education.

The need for parent advocates and district watchdogs is great, said Amy Redding, chair of the San Diego Unified School District advisory council that oversees funds for low-income students provided through the federal Title 1 program.

The fear, she said, is that districts will take money intended to be spent on low-income and English learner students and use it to fulfill other obligations, such as potential employee raises.

“What we want to do in San Diego Unified,” she said, “is to create a proactive, engaged parent body that is difficult to say no to.”

Jane Meredith Adams covers student health. Contact her or follow her @JaneAdams. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California. The California Endowment provides support for student wellness coverage, but has no input into our editorial content. 

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