Kay McElrath

Kay McElrath

As we all scramble to comprehend the nuances of last month’s budget compromise, there’s no shortage of commentary as to the wisdom or lack thereof of the Local Control Funding Formula as written.

Generally I find my colleagues falling into four camps – those who claim the sky could fall if there aren’t strict limits on how local educational agencies can spend the money; those who are equally certain the sky will fall if there are strict limits on how LEAs can spend the money; those who never thought it would actually happen so haven’t been paying a lot of attention until now; and those who are pinching themselves because they never thought that they would live to see it. I guess that I would have to say that I fall into the last camp.

I’m pushing 60 and have spent nearly half my life working in California school finance, and I have long believed that a student-driven formula would make infinitely more sense than the irrational and inefficient system that has prevailed. But year after year, despite often intense criticism of the status quo, the political obstacles have proven so immense that few efforts have gone beyond the talking stage. And now, we have it. Is the end product imperfect? Certainly. But perfection cannot exist in this case since any one school or district’s perception of perfection will certainly find no shortage of critics who see it differently. But if we accept that some degree of compromise is necessary to move forward and a 90% right solution is better than a 90% wrong status quo, then we have reason to celebrate and to commend the governor and his finance team for providing the leadership to see it through.

Some who are not a part of our professional community might mistake the grumble here and grumble there as evidence that there’s a fundamental problem with moving in this direction. I don’t see that. I find that I have lots of company in my belief that the core principles of this reform are valid and overdue. Even among those who are anxious about one aspect of the plan or another, most readily agree with the overarching goals and the fact that it makes sense to move in this direction.

So as we start the task of implementing this significant reform, let’s work together to find the balance required between those who fear a lack of tight restrictions and those who would like no restriction at all. There needs to be clear direction, but please, no shackles.

Districts and charter schools need freedom to develop effective strategies that will make their schools, as a whole, stronger. There are some who believe that use of supplemental and concentration funds – the extra money districts will receive for high-needs students – should be limited to targeted assistance only for those students. I hope they will take into account that often the first and best work that we can do for our most challenged students is to strengthen the school for all students and offer the strongest core program possible, not be limited to band-aids in compensation for the lack of one.

But while arguing for a significant degree of flexibility, we must not lose sight of the fact that a substantial part of the resources that will come to us are intended to give us the capacity to improve the futures of those students whose life circumstances bring exceptional challenges. If a strengthened core program proves insufficient for individual students, we must be ready with powerful interventions to help them succeed. This is our moral and ethical responsibility as public educators.

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Kay McElrath is chief financial officer at High Tech High, an integrated network of schools spanning grades K-12, a comprehensive teacher certification program and a new Graduate School of Education. She began her career in California school finance with San Diego Unified in 1987.

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  1. George Buzzetti 6 years ago6 years ago

    This person obviously does not know how fraud works in schools. I am an expert in this having found billions and was behind the information that led to Schiff-Bustamente for $1.5 billion extra for textbooks and instructional materials and supplies. This is "Educational Realignment" just like Criminal Justice Realignment. There will be no accountability at all as stated by Torlaksons top advisor in Fresno recently. 80% of the CDE funding is … Read More

    This person obviously does not know how fraud works in schools. I am an expert in this having found billions and was behind the information that led to Schiff-Bustamente for $1.5 billion extra for textbooks and instructional materials and supplies. This is “Educational Realignment” just like Criminal Justice Realignment. There will be no accountability at all as stated by Torlaksons top advisor in Fresno recently. 80% of the CDE funding is from the Feds to only monitor NCLB and RTTT. The Calif. legislature has defunded CDE so it can do no accountability. Their numbers are phony as can be when you compare to the CDE website. Where do they get their numbers from? Fantasy Island???

  2. Manuel 6 years ago6 years ago

    As a member of the interested citizenry, I'd like to know what is meant here by "student outcomes." Are those the results of once-a-year state-administered standardized test? Or are they locally-produced and locally-administered assessment? Are these "21st Century" "real time assessment tools" those rumored to be associated with the Common Core? And how can "personalized learning opportunities" not be equivalent to "targeting expenditures?" Finally, are the stakeholders (meaning parents and community members) simply to trust the educrats in charge … Read More

    As a member of the interested citizenry, I’d like to know what is meant here by “student outcomes.”

    Are those the results of once-a-year state-administered standardized test? Or are they locally-produced and locally-administered assessment?

    Are these “21st Century” “real time assessment tools” those rumored to be associated with the Common Core?

    And how can “personalized learning opportunities” not be equivalent to “targeting expenditures?”

    Finally, are the stakeholders (meaning parents and community members) simply to trust the educrats in charge of these expenditures? We know that teachers and on-site administrators have had not much say in program selection, so why would that change, especially since there is now much money at stake?

    In advance, thank you for your reply.

    Replies

    • Terena Mares 6 years ago6 years ago

      All very good questions. Student outcomes are best defined by every teacher, every day through real time assessment tools. Real time assessment tools run the gamit from what is seen, heard and observed by the classroom teacher to any number of emerging blended teaching and learning strategies. These are not necessarily associated with the Common Core but could be. The best and most meaningful assessment of outcomes rest with the teacher. … Read More

      All very good questions. Student outcomes are best defined by every teacher, every day through real time assessment tools. Real time assessment tools run the gamit from what is seen, heard and observed by the classroom teacher to any number of emerging blended teaching and learning strategies. These are not necessarily associated with the Common Core but could be. The best and most meaningful assessment of outcomes rest with the teacher. Well defined, local priorities, developed with input and participation from local stakeholders will best drive the right tool for the right job in each community. The Accountability Plan element of the Local Control Funding Formula will require this input and participation.

      Targeted expenditures focuses on dollars, not learning outcomes. One may lead to the other but they are not equivalent. Those of us who are charged with directing and tracking restricted expenditures can attest to how inefficient and frustrating it is to be prevented from directly responding to real needs because state and federal restrictions have dictated from afar what is best in our local classrooms.

      Thank you.

      • Manuel 6 years ago6 years ago

        Ms. Mares, thank you for a clear response.

        I note, however, that you chose not to include state-mandated and administered assessment as well as to comment that needs should be resolved locally.

        I agree with that sentiment and can only hope that the implementation of LCFF at the local district will meaningfully include all stakeholders and not be just the decisions made by local Superintendents and rubber-stamped by their Boards.

      • navigio 6 years ago6 years ago

        Hi Terena, I am still confused by your comments. The 'change' that LCFF is bringing is essentially two-fold: a 'flexing' of virtually all categoricals (to varying extent depending on what accountability ends up meaning) and a supposed shifting of accountability from the state to the local level (personally I think that change is understated). I find it telling that the author here points out that any change in strategy is likely to come at the expense of … Read More

        Hi Terena, I am still confused by your comments.

        The ‘change’ that LCFF is bringing is essentially two-fold: a ‘flexing’ of virtually all categoricals (to varying extent depending on what accountability ends up meaning) and a supposed shifting of accountability from the state to the local level (personally I think that change is understated).

        I find it telling that the author here points out that any change in strategy is likely to come at the expense of intervention. This is something that was obvious to me from the get-go. To a large extent, usage of our current categoricals are controlled at the school level (SSC). That is about as local as it gets. A change in strategy from the status quo necessarily means removing control over those dollars and instead giving to the school board and/or district admins. Personally, I find this contradicts the spirit of your comments in that it no longer will be teachers at schools who have direct input into defining how those resources are used. That will be a significant change, imho. And one I expect high-needs advocacy groups still do not understand.

        Furthermore, its probably useful to point out that its likely that currently the majority of our categorical dollars at the school level are used for targeted intervention (this is how its been in my experience). This is about as ‘responding to real needs’ as it gets. The idea that a district level ‘accountability’ plan (created every how many years?) will be able to address the needs of individual students in any real time manner is simply not realistic. I cant even see this working at small districts, imagine in middle size ones, or something like LAUSD. In our school, we actually move kids in and out of intervention during the year depending on current needs. That will be impossible if district level admins are making the decisions only once every couple of years, and impossible regardless.

        So for me, statements made in articles like this are actually about taking power away from teachers and schools and giving it to people who do not have insight into what is happening at the school level, plain and simple. Actually, that is what LCFF is about, or at least potentially. (I may have mentioned in earlier comments that one of the first things our district did when it appeared LCFF might actually be a real possibility was to put all the EIA funded intervention teachers on a RIF list. gee…..). The interesting thing about LCFF is that its claimed to be done on behalf of kids in need. This immediately makes it seem like the end result necessarily will help those kids. The reality is that is far from a given.

        Finally, I very much appreciate the subtleties of some of the ideas mentioned by the author, most important of which is the question of whether supplemental funds might actually be more useful to improve ‘core’ programs. Its absolutely a valid position to say that one believes stronger core programs are a better use of those funds, not only for lower-need students, but even for higher need students. And this might actually be true! The problem I have, however, is no one has yet made the argument why this is the case. Is this based on some ‘evidence’? Data? Or is it based on the fact that accounting office jobs will be made easier? I sure hope not. My fear is that for some people it is based on that only partially hidden belief in california that higher-need kids’ outcomes are predetermined and thus we need to ‘cut our losses’. Gulp.

        The closest thing to an argument for directing supplemental funds to core programs that i’ve seen has been the claim that existing use of categoricals is not working. Unfortunately, as is usually the case, these kinds of arguments have many holes. A fairly relevant one is whether our level of intervention has even been sufficient to see the kind of change we expected, and maybe more importantly, whether diminishing core programs make intervention less effective, or even whether shifting those resources away from intervention to core programs could make any kind of dent in the quality of the core program. I even think your point about claiming to not have the freedom to currently use the funds as needed makes it impossible to claim that current intervention uses are failing. How do we know if we cant implement them? So, its nice to hear people bring up these ideas, but that doesnt make them effective, nor does it mean any kind of results will ensue.

        I am still waiting for someone to make this argument. While I am decidedly pro-intervention (if thats a position), I am also open to the possibility that core programs can be as or more (or less) important to the quality of high-need school districts as a whole. I very much want to have an actual discussion on that, though I fear I will have to wait until 2020-21.

        I’d also like to quickly point out an additional subtlety. I expect that many people who make the arguments that are made in this article will be in more affluent school districts (I am not saying the article is coming from that standpoint, just that those people will probably share this sentiment). I expect many of those people will not realize that more affluent districts will not have the opportunity to improve their core programs as a result of LCFF, in fact likely just the opposite–I expect they will even be cutting for a few more years. We need to remember that in districts where these supplemental funds will exist to any level that they can make a difference will be largely high-need districts. This means that even improving core-programs will address the needs of mostly needs kids (obviously). From this standpoint, it may be difficult to discern the resulting impact differences between core and intervention targeting. But most importantly, this will NOT help low-needs districts at all. People need to understand that. Arguing for improved core programs will only benefit non-needs students in high-needs districts. I think things will get a bit more interesting when this slowly dawns on people as LCFF is rolled out, especially after people in those districts were duped into voting for prop 30 in the belief they would actually benefit from it merely because they were also a public school district.

        • navigio 6 years ago6 years ago

          whoops, I meant ‘overstated’ ‘in the first paragraph.

        • Manuel 6 years ago6 years ago

          Hi, Navigio. To me, the problem is that the categoricals ended supplanting not supplementing the school budget under the old formula. This meant that teachers, counselors and even some staff were paid from the categoricals instead of the "base" budget. Why didn't the base budget include these costs? Because the District decided to fund only what was "required" by state law and told schools that they would fund those positions (half a nurse? a quarter of … Read More

          Hi, Navigio.

          To me, the problem is that the categoricals ended supplanting not supplementing the school budget under the old formula. This meant that teachers, counselors and even some staff were paid from the categoricals instead of the “base” budget. Why didn’t the base budget include these costs? Because the District decided to fund only what was “required” by state law and told schools that they would fund those positions (half a nurse? a quarter of a librarian?) only. Period. So principals used, for example, Title I funds to pay for nurses and library aides and had no money to buy toilet paper. Really, that happened.

          It is still not known what the District will do with the new-and-improved categorical spending that the supplemental and concentration grants represent. We can only speculate based on previous behavior.

          Ideally, though, every school should get funding proportional to the numbers of eligible students it has and then the SSC helps the principal decide how to allocate the resources. There is, however, no guarantee that this will be done wisely because there is no expertise local to the schools in how to properly manage these resources. In fact, I know someone who insists that parts of the Ed Code do not grant such spending authority on the SSC.

          I suspect, however, that a significant portion of these new funds will be diverted to maintain the Evil Empire that is LAUSD. Bureaucracies are like any life form and will attempt to gobble resources to keep themselves alive (someone suggested to me they are like cancer but that seems a bit extreme). In my opinion, that’s where the real problem lies, not on whether they will dictate to schools how to use the funds.

          BTW, LAUSD does not have targeted programs. It officially has “school-wide” programs only. Why? Because it makes it easier to use categorical funding as supplemental and also simplifies accounting. Win win, no?

          (I am not getting into whether or not the changes brought about by the new funding will increase scores as it is being demanded by some. As I am sure you know, I don’t believe that will happen because of poverty, but let’s leave that for another time. I’m also not going to get into what all this means to schools that have less than 40% children in poverty, where many voters got, as you said, duped into voting for Prop 30 only to find that the bulk of the money does not go to their schools at all. Yes, they exist in LAUSD, a district with 70%+ poverty.)

          • navigio 6 years ago6 years ago

            Hi Manuel. I think it's critical to differentiate between state and federal funding. LCFF has nothing to do with title 1. It is only state categoricals (primarily eia but others as well) that are being done away with. Even then, the restrictions on title 1 spending are much more laxed than they are for eia, for example. There are things you can use title 1 for that you could never get away with for eia (your … Read More

            Hi Manuel.

            I think it’s critical to differentiate between state and federal funding. LCFF has nothing to do with title 1. It is only state categoricals (primarily eia but others as well) that are being done away with. Even then, the restrictions on title 1 spending are much more laxed than they are for eia, for example. There are things you can use title 1 for that you could never get away with for eia (your point is well taken that LCFF uses title 1 restrictions as the new metric–something that dovetails with my concern over what it means for schools to lose that control). In fact, although I admit that I don’t know for sure, I would be surprised if eia would have allowed school wide uses if defined at the district level and not by the SSC directly. That said, I admit its one thing to fund a resource to do x and quite another to know that it did not actually do y and z.

            I do agree with you that much of this money will be diverted, or at least the danger of that is very real. That was the point of my previous post–sorry difficult to maintain a train of thought on a cell phone. I do think, however, diverting it for actual core educational programs is different than diverting it for bureaucracy. Since a large portion of the base will be diverted for special ed anyway, perhaps our mistake is in actually believing supplement can ever exist.

            Your point a out the lack of SSC ability is intriguing. Personally I think they have that, or at least can choose to have that if people actually bother to be involved, but as a recent SSC chair I am somewhat biased. 😉

            The thing that really troubled me about this article gets exactly to this point. SSC members are half school staff, consisting of mostly teachers and always the principal. There is no one in the entire system who has better insight into the needs of the students at a given school than these people; surely not some number cruncher at the office on the hill, nor some elected official who spends a few hours a week sleeping through board meetings.

            I will go a bit further on your concern about the district dictating uses. I don’t think the district will be that nice, rather they will simply make the decisions themselves. LCFF puts the onus on the schools and community to make sure that doesn’t happen. Good luck with that.

            Finally, I would be extremely interested in hearing the Ed code basis for SSC not having spending authority. Again, in this case I am focusing primarily on eia since I believe that is the state categorical that will be most impacted.

  3. Terena Mares 6 years ago6 years ago

    Hurray for Kay! First of all, I'm pleased to hear the voice of a fellow California school finance colleague who's in that last camp. You've touched on the essence of what is at risk with the formula. That is, the fear and subsequent need to push it back into the old world of expenditure restrictions. Clear direction but no shackles, yes. I would expand that to include clear expectations, which … Read More

    Hurray for Kay! First of all, I’m pleased to hear the voice of a fellow California school finance colleague who’s in that last camp. You’ve touched on the essence of what is at risk with the formula. That is, the fear and subsequent need to push it back into the old world of expenditure restrictions. Clear direction but no shackles, yes. I would expand that to include clear expectations, which is what we have with this reform: student outcomes.

    The benefit we have in the 21st Century is that we have real time assessment tools that assist us in responding and adjusting to real time student learning needs. Instead of targeting expenditures on the students who generate the funds (the very idea calls for separation and segregation), we have, for the first time, 21st Century teaching tools that gives students personalized learning opportunities on a grand scale. If we shackle ourselves by letting dollars decide who needs what we are tying ourselves to yesterday’s results. Been there, done that. Let’s move on into a system that allows us to be responsive to individual student needs, fueled by a formula that provides more to educational agencies that serve students who need more. In other words, let’s place our focus on results instead of dollars. The elements of the required accountability plan set the stage for this.

    In an ideal world, results equal accountability and therefor accountability or lack thereof speaks for itself. The required Accountability Plans will provide the framework for this. Nevertheless, the Local Control Funding Formula still requires some degree of tracking dollars. All the same, there are yet simple ways of accounting for all of this that would not recreate the old world disconnect between what we spend money on and what students actually learn. Hopefully we can hold ourselves back from crawling back into that proverbial restrictive box that ultimately restricts us from giving kids what they need.