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.
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.