There are great expectations that the historic – and necessary – reforms of California’s outdated and opaque school financing system signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown this summer will translate into improved student performance.
However, there are several potential weaknesses in the law that could threaten its ability to produce the results Gov. Brown has in mind. Whether these are addressed at the outset – as the law is being implemented – could determine whether this reform will succeed over the long term in improving the academic outcomes of our lowest-performing students.
Over the next several weeks, EdSource will look at each of these danger areas in greater depth and suggest ways that the new funding law could be strengthened to ensure that its full potential will be fulfilled. Here are four key issues:
Additional funds will be spent without getting results
The most transformative dimension of the new funding system is that it provides additional funds to districts based on the number of low-income students, English learners and foster children in attendance in a district. However, there is a danger that many school districts will spend funds in a scattershot fashion, rather than targeting the funds on programs and services that are likely to produce the greatest gains in student achievement.
The law gives little guidance as to how funds should be spent. In fact, that is one of its main purposes: to give school districts unprecedented control over how to spend state education funds. However, a preponderance of research – in California and elsewhere – shows there is no direct relationship between how much money a district spends and students’ academic outcomes.
What could make a difference, though, is if funds were targeted in areas that research shows have a direct impact on student success. That could include, for example, ensuring that students have effective teachers, which would mean providing high-quality support programs for new teachers and improving the quality of professional development training for all teachers.
Funds could be spread too thinly to make a difference
Another concern is whether districts will have sufficient funds to achieve the law’s ambitious goals – and whether they will spread funds too thinly if they try to achieve them all.
The law states that districts will be assessed on how they (and their students) perform in eight “priority” areas, the full parameters of which must still be fleshed out by the State Board of Education. These include broad measures of student achievement (test scores, share of students taking Advanced Placement classes, preparedness for college and careers, and so on); student engagement (for example, attendance and absenteeism rates); school climate (as measured by suspension and expulsion rates, for example); parental involvement; and the condition of school facilities.
The challenge is that the funds districts will receive through the new formula are not based on how much it actually will cost them to do well in all these priority areas. Instead, levels of funding were negotiated in the Legislature, and were based on projections of available funding, not the actual cost of providing the necessary services districts need to get the desired results. This year, school districts will get more money than they received last year, and for districts with large numbers of low-income students, English learners and foster children, that amount will rise steadily for the next eight years. But amounts will vary tremendously among districts, depending on the number of their students who fall into one of those high-need categories.
Local Accountability and Control Plan won’t hold school districts accountable
Under the law, every three years a school district must draw up a Local Control and Accountability Plan, which must be updated each year, with input from a range of education stakeholders, including parents and students. However, the risk is that the accountability plan could end up being as ineffective as the School Accountability Report Card – colloquially known as SARCs – which was mandated by voters as part of Proposition 98, a 1988 initiative that guarantees a minimum level of funding be set aside in the state budget each year for education.
When the initiative was approved, voters were assured that schools and community colleges would be held accountable for how the minimum amount guaranteed under the initiative – at the time about 40 percent of the state’s general fund – would be spent. A quarter century later, the SARCs have not achieved what Prop. 98 specifically stated they were intended to do to — “guarantee accountability for the dollars spent.” The SARCs are often difficult to find, are lengthy documents that often double as public relations pieces for schools and school districts, and they have been weighted down by information mandated by a slew of new requirements imposed by the Legislature in the years since they were first mandated.
The danger is that the new Local Control and Accountability Plan will also end up as a large, multifaceted and unwieldy document that will not be especially useful in providing evidence that funds are being spent effectively to improve student outcomes. It will be up to the State Board of Education to ensure that turns out not to be the case.
New law’s complexity will discourage community involvement
The new law is supposed to introduce transparency and simplicity into California’s extraordinarily complex school financing system, which has been beyond the understanding of ordinary Californians, including many directly involved in the schools. However, the new school financing law is also extremely complicated, especially in regard to how the law will be implemented over the next eight years. “LCFF is neither simpler nor more transparent than the system it replaced, especially during the phase-in period,” Rick Pratt, chief consultant to the Assembly Education Committee, who is widely regarded as one of the most knowledgeable school finance experts in the state, told EdSource.
Some of the more challenging parts of the law include how the base grant that districts are targeted to receive at “full funding” in 2020-21 is calculated, the changing allocations districts will receive each year until full funding is achieved, and how state funds will be allocated based on the number of students with greater educational needs. Adding to the challenge is that arguably the most complex part of how California’s schools are financed – Proposition 98 – remains untouched by the new law.
The complexity of the new law is especially relevant, as one of its most innovative provisions is that it requires school districts to get input from community-level participants in their schools – school staff, parents, community members and even students – as they decide how best to use state funds. If the law is too complex for ordinary Californians to understand, that could play a major role in discouraging all but education experts to be directly involved in the process.
The State Board of Education has been given the responsibility to flesh out many aspects of the law during the coming two years. Now is the time for Californians to come forward and encourage the board — and if necessary the Legislature — to make the necessary fixes or adjustments, not years from now when it may be too late to make midcourse corrections.
If you have recommendations for how the law could be enforced more effectively, please let us know – and we will forward your comments to State Board of Education President Michael Kirst.
Louis Freedberg is executive director of EdSource. Follow him @louisfr.