State senators pressed members of the State Board of Education on Wednesday to tell them whether dollars spent for schools under a new system of local control are being spent effectively.
“Are we getting our money’s worth and how do we know?” Sen. Marty Block, D-San Diego, asked during a Senate Education Committee hearing.
He and other senators didn’t get a simple or fully satisfying response from State Board President Michael Kirst and board member Sue Burr. They told the committee, in an otherwise upbeat assessment of landmark changes the state is going through, that it’s too soon to know.
In the past three years, Block said, school districts have received $13 billion in new funding. Funding per student varies by district under the Local Control Funding Formula, or LCFF, in which revenue is distributed partly according to enrollment of low-income children and English language learners. So it’s been a big increase for some districts, yet barely enough to bring spending back to pre-recession levels for others with few high-needs students.
Districts are required to account for spending in a Local Control and Accountability Plan, in which they set three-year goals and priorities and then update annually. County offices of education must review and approve each LCAP, but Kirst acknowledged that the state is not compiling and studying data on how districts are spending money under the funding formula.
That troubled Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, who said that legislators want to know how the state is spending overall education dollars. “That data is out there. Shouldn’t we be gathering it to know about impact?”
Kirst noted the challenge of striking a balance between flexibility and accountability under the new law. The Legislature, in passing LCFF, did away with dozens of categorical programs that dictated district spending. At the same time, the general accounting categories required by the state are too broad for useful comparisons, he said. They won’t differentiate between spending for counselors, lowering class sizes or hiring new English teachers.
Then that’s a problem, Pan said, and it extends to tracking spending at the school level, too. “There need to be some standardized definitions for parents to have a better handle on how districts are allocating resources. We always say, ‘Budgets indicate priorities.’”
Burr said that parents must examine spending in the LCAP and then the annual updates to see how the money was actually used. But critics have pointed out the LCAP is vague on requiring itemized expenditures for the supplemental dollars that districts receive for low-income students and English learners. Money for those students that is not spent at the end of the year is not earmarked for the following year.
Kirst said that the challenge is not to make the LCAP more complicated than it already is by adding details that will turn off parents and community members from reading it. But he also acknowledged that he is “not satisfied with where we are now.”
Common criticisms he has heard, he said, are that the LCAPs are too long, complex and hard to understand, that there is a lack of connection between LCAP priorities and a district’s overall budget, and that there is not enough information on how money is being used to improve or increase services for students targeted for extra money.
The state board is considering amending the LCAP template and will discuss ideas at its May meeting, with a plan to adopt changes in the fall.
New measurements of achievement
Along with rolling out a new funding system, the state has adopted new standardized tests for the Common Core standards, and the state board is developing a new system to measure student achievement; it will be adopted this fall.
Accountability remains a work in progress, complicating an ability to measure immediate results. Burr pointed to high school graduation rates, which have increased for all students and dramatically for some low-performing subgroups of students. The state has one-year results on the Smarter Balanced tests, measuring performance in English language arts and math based on Common Core standards, with a second year out next summer. The state will be using a handful of other metrics, beyond test scores, as well, Kirst said, although they have not yet been chosen.
But he and Burr said that statewide metrics are only one piece of performance. Districts also set their own priorities in their LCAPs, and those goals must be measured as well.
Oakland Unified, said Kirst, is spending substantially on career pathway programs, and so a key metric should be how well it is implementing them.
Rick Miller, executive director of CORE, the California Office to Reform Education, reiterated that view. The six districts in CORE, which include three of the four largest in the state – Los Angeles, Long Beach and Fresno – have created their own School Quality Improvement Index with metrics on school climate and middle school readiness that the state doesn’t currently require and probably won’t in the future.
All accountability systems should not look alike, Miller said during the hearing. The state should not impose a single system but should “allow districts to improve with local innovation.”
Wednesday was an informational hearing, with legislators expected to take up their own ideas for accountability through the budget or legislation in coming months.