Credit:Charlie Kaijo on flickr
Gov. Jerry Brown

If he chooses, Gov. Jerry Brown can leave office a year from now with the satisfaction of seeing the Local Control Funding Formula, the sweeping school funding and improvement reform he championed, intact and fully funded — at least as the 2013 law defines full funding.

The question he should ask himself is whether it would be wiser to negotiate needed fixes to the law or watch the Legislature, the next governor and a new State Board of Education the new governor will appoint, start chipping away at the funding formula in ways Brown might regret.

The Local Control Funding Formula’s guiding concepts and vision aren’t in jeopardy. To a person, the cross-section of two dozen education experts, advocates and legislators that EdSource asked to suggest improvements to the law indicated that they like its ambitious goals and its focus on addressing gaps in student achievement.

But most also expressed complaints about either flaws in the law or shortcomings in implementing it. They voiced three common criticisms:

  • Fiscal transparency — the ability to document how money is spent for student groups drawing extra dollars under the formula — is too weak.
  • Funding for basic operating expenses is too low.
  • The planning and accountability document that all districts must write, the Local Control and Accountability Plan, is too burdensome. “A new compliance document that no one but county office of education bureaucrats will read” is how Carl Cohn, who leads the new state agency that will work with districts on self-improvement, described the current LCAP in his comment.

Brown signaled early on that he considered it premature to consider amending the funding formula. So far he has ignored legislators’ grumblings, including Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, who, in her EdSource comment, warned that without better documentation of funding, disadvantaged students will be “sacrificed to the misguided priorities — or mismanagement — of adults.”

Brown, with a veto pen, may figure he doesn’t have to worry about legislators’ gripes. But a more subtle and, in the long run, graver threat would be a loss of voters’ support. Local control assumes the involvement of active parents and community members. If they conclude the new accountability dashboard is too dense, school improvement is too slow, and many districts are playing a shell game to hide the money, the system could be in trouble.

By design, the funding formula does not enable ready comparisons of what the state’s nearly 1,000 districts do with their money. Studies by researchers and by advocacy groups like the Education Trust-West have found good- and bad-faith efforts to comply with the funding formula, as well as innovations in addressing achievement gaps and ignorance of some of the law’s basic requirements. The anecdotes are interesting, but decentralization limits a bigger picture.

A new school improvement system with multi-colored dashboards displaying many metrics of performance will enable district and school comparisons. It will shine a powerful light on low-performing demographic and ethnic groups. But the system is just now getting off the ground.

Despite scant evidence yet of a transformative impact, educators and legislators have faith in the Local Control Funding Formula’s principles:

Liberate the local: After more than a decade under the No Child Left Behind Act and California’s version preceding it, Washington and Sacramento had little to show for prescriptive, top-down school reforms. Brown argued it was school boards’ turn to set priorities and guide improvement. What’s unclear is whether administrators and teachers will rise to the challenge of “continuous improvement” or whether it will befuddle them and their partners at county offices of education.

Make funding fairer: Brown argued that equal opportunity for academic success and the state’s need for a well-educated workforce require directing more funding to students who need additional resources: low-income children, English learners, foster youths and rising numbers of homeless children. A district made up entirely of these high-needs students would get 40 percent more “supplemental” and “concentration” funding per student than a district where they make up 5 percent of enrollment.

View achievement broadly: Reacting to an era of narrow test-based accountability, the Legislature said, “Pay attention to the conditions like school climate, parent involvement and student engagement. Set goals for measuring improvement in those areas, too; don’t fixate on standardized test results.”

Four years into the law, expectations are running high. But so are frustrations. In an effort to satisfy the Legislature’s demand that districts address eight priority areas and student advocacy groups’ call for more accountability, the state board created an LCAP template that continues to draw criticism for demanding documents that are too dense and long. The template is now in its third iteration.

The funding law doesn’t provide “adequate” funding, nor was it set up to. It redistributes money to districts based on the needs of their students.

The law took effect when districts were still reeling from the 2008-09 recession. Brown projected that the transition to full funding — where every district would be restored at least to pre-recession funding, plus inflation — would be complete in 2020-21. At that point, all districts would get the same base funding per student, plus supplemental and concentration dollars based on numbers of high-needs students. Because of favorable state revenue, Brown may be able to make full funding his going-away gift.

Base funding should cover general district expenses, including staff salaries, and services for all students. But districts have been slammed with escalating employee pension costs that legislators mandated since passing the funding law. By one calculation, the combination of added pension costs and increases in special education expenses will consume more than the growth in base funding this year.

Districts are facing difficult choices as a result: cut staff or programs for all students, take money from savings — an unsustainable option — or siphon off supplemental and concentration funding that the law says should be used to improve or increase services for English learners and low-income students. Districts that agree to give raises to staff that are well above the cost of inflation probably are at least partly funding them this way.

But that’s often hard to know, because the funding law doesn’t require districts to keep a full accounting of how supplemental and concentration dollars are spent. Faced with LCAPs with hundreds of pages, some parents and student advocates have thrown up their hands trying to track the money.

School districts, particularly those in suburban areas, are clamoring for more base funding. “The promise of LCFF will not be realized and local control becomes a myth unless we do something to address the fiscal realities and growing liabilities our schools are facing in California,” wrote Edgar Zazueta, senior director of policy and government relations for the Association of California School Administrators. But districts generally have opposed calls for stricter accounting for supplemental and concentration spending.

Weber and civil rights and advocacy groups like Children Now call for breakdowns of funding formula spending at the school level — a position opposed by Brown and the state board — and advocates may fight more base funding at the expense of supplemental and concentration dollars.

Might there be room for compromise? After all, a system that doesn’t cover basic expenses and permits budget fudging and gamesmanship fosters cynicism. It’s encouraging that Stephen McMahon, deputy superintendent for San Jose Unified, wrote that he favors more transparency and standardized accounting of funding formula spending.

Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, wrote that in 2018, the Senate Education Committee, which he chairs, will explore ways to address “a new set of challenges” facing the Local Control Funding Formula.

If Brown’s education advisers participate, perhaps there’ll be a deal.

SHARE ARTICLE

Thanks for reading.

Can you help sustain our reporting?

Our team of journalists, editors, and fact-checkers do an estimated 440 hours of research every week to bring you the news on California education. That's a lot of work.

For a limited time, your contributions will be doubled through the NewsMatch matching gifts program.

Comments (5)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments Policy

The goal of the comments section on EdSource is to facilitate thoughtful conversation about content published on our website. Click here for EdSource's Comments Policy.

  1. Ed Brown 6 days ago6 days ago

    Decentralization and “local control” is no solution, and is open for abuse under the current laws. It is not believable that the current LCAP requirements are a burden, because there is no requirement for the LCAP to be accurate or truthful, nor is the school district required to adhere to their plan. The Cupertino Union School District provides a current example. Before the 2016 school board election, the superintendent created an … Read More

    Decentralization and “local control” is no solution, and is open for abuse under the current laws. It is not believable that the current LCAP requirements are a burden, because there is no requirement for the LCAP to be accurate or truthful, nor is the school district required to adhere to their plan.
    The Cupertino Union School District provides a current example. Before the 2016 school board election, the superintendent created an LCAP with a highly publicized plan to provide every student with a personal iPad device, with three years funding coming from a facilities bond fund so it would not impact current programs. Acting in bad faith, the district approved the 2017 LCAP continued the plan of three years funded from the facilities bond fund, despite knowing that the funds did not exist. Having approved the 2017 LCAP only the month before, the district then quietly shifted the million-dollar expenditure to the General Fund. In an appeal that CUSD was not following their LCAP or engaging stakeholders by amending the LCAP, the CDE ruled that the LCAP is approved in “good faith” and the statute does not require a LCAP to be amended. The LCAP is merely a “shell game” where parents can’t track if the funding is real or spent according to the plan.

  2. Don 7 days ago7 days ago

    Most categorical funding was flexed to solve the shortfalls of the Great Recession. Districts lobbied to keep it flexed and soon thereafter we had the LCFF and the end of standardized reporting for most programs. Now that we have local control there is a call for more accountability and more reporting transparency. And round and round it goes while the achievement gap is largely unchanged with local control and outsized expenditures on underperforming … Read More

    Most categorical funding was flexed to solve the shortfalls of the Great Recession. Districts lobbied to keep it flexed and soon thereafter we had the LCFF and the end of standardized reporting for most programs. Now that we have local control there is a call for more accountability and more reporting transparency. And round and round it goes while the achievement gap is largely unchanged with local control and outsized expenditures on underperforming students. No funding scheme will ever change the achievement gap. It’s not about money.

  3. Fred Jones 1 week ago1 week ago

    Fantastic outline of some of the issues facing proponents/defenders of LCFF and LCAPs. Most education experts agree that in the wake of NCLB craziness and the resultant "curricular narrowing" phenomenon, more decision-making should be devolved to the local governing boards and classroom instructors. However, there are some state priorities that should include robust state leadership and oversight, including keeping our economy and its workforce competitive with the other 49 states and with the international market-place. … Read More

    Fantastic outline of some of the issues facing proponents/defenders of LCFF and LCAPs.

    Most education experts agree that in the wake of NCLB craziness and the resultant “curricular narrowing” phenomenon, more decision-making should be devolved to the local governing boards and classroom instructors.

    However, there are some state priorities that should include robust state leadership and oversight, including keeping our economy and its workforce competitive with the other 49 states and with the international market-place. Yet there is scant attention paid to career readiness in almost every single LCAP in the state, and the SBE is still struggling with measurable/comparable criteria to offer guidance to LEAs.

    This is why policymakers are considering extending the state incentive for high-quality Career Technical Education in next year’s Budget, a move that on its face contradicts local control (although it does require local buy-in, both monetarily and adhering to high standards that mirror federal Perkins requirements, as a condition of receipt of these state funds).

    And in the wake of Trump’s startling election last November, and the rise of “fake news” of questionable sources, many are questioning the adequacy of preparing students for civic engagement in our fragile representative democracy. The Social Studies — like the Arts, Computer Sciences, CTE and even Science — have all been marginalized in recent decades. How does LCFF and locally-determined LCAPs promise a reversal of this troubling curricular narrowing?

    So while “local control” has very few detractors, classroom instructional time is still driven by the incentives and accountability metrics set in Sacramento (and to a disturbing extent D.C.). And those remain largely fixated on high-stakes assessments in ELA/Math, with only ambiguous and toothless mention of a broader curricular bandwidth that should be present in all of our schools, particularly middle and comprehensive high schools.

  4. John Gray 1 week ago1 week ago

    Outstanding article John!!

  5. Joan 1 week ago1 week ago

    No colorful dashboards will fix California’s education system. Michael Kirst, president of the State Board, and Jerry are great buddies and are looking to increase charters across the state. There goes public funds to private vendors.
    Until Brown is out of office, this will not change and no color of the rainbow on the ridiculous dashboard will fix that. Wake up California!