Credit: Alison Yin / EdSource

The independent, nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office is recommending that the state shift nearly all of  $1 billion in unrestricted funding that currently goes to county offices of education to school districts instead. That would allow districts to choose how to provide many services they now get from county offices, whose operations could be scaled way back as a result.

In a report issued Monday, the LAO criticized the lack of accountability of a system that funds county offices “regardless of how well they address the priorities of their districts.” It said that funding school districts directly would be more consistent with the Local Control Funding Formula’s philosophy of burdening districts with “few strings” in deciding what works best for them.

But the executive director of the organization representing the state’s 58 county offices called the report a “fundamentally flawed analysis” that would dismantle county offices. “The findings are dramatically out of proportion” and “show a misunderstanding of what we are doing,” said Peter Birdsall, who runs the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association.

The LAO report comes at a critical time for the county offices. Starting this spring, one of their mandated duties under a new school and district accountability system will be to see that districts address areas of poor performance on a range of new measures, including test scores, student suspension rates, and readiness for college and careers. Birdsall’s organization says that the counties need more funding for additional oversight responsibilities – money that Gov. Jerry Brown didn’t include in his proposed budget for next year.

But the bigger, costlier question – one that the LAO doesn’t address – is who would actually provide low-performing schools and districts with the technical help and more extensive assistance they would require. Would it be county offices, many of which already provide training and guidance, by default, or could a district choose their providers from other county offices, high-performing school districts, and for-profit and nonprofit organizations with proven expertise? The LAO suggests that the State Board of Education and the Legislature together should decide how the system would work. At the same time, they should redefine the functions of county offices, which the report says have become “nebulous.”

The current system, the LAO said, has shortcomings because districts have “limited incentives” to oversee the quality of students’ education in court and county community schools.

Natasha Collins, an education analyst and coauthor, with Kenneth Kapphahn, of the LAO report, said that shifting money from the county offices to the districts could “level the playing field” by giving school districts more resources and authority to select who would provide services for improvement.

What county offices do

Run by elected school boards and, in all but five counties, by an elected county superintendent, county offices of education range in size and capacity. While the average county office serves 16 school districts, the Los Angeles County Office of Education serves 80 school districts, and seven county offices serve only one.

Because the state is so large, the Legislature has ceded some responsibilities of the California Department of Education to county education offices. Among them:

  • Running court schools for students who are in juvenile detention centers and county community schools for expelled students and those on probation;
  • Monitoring districts’ budgets to ensure they remain financially sound;
  • Reviewing Local Control and Accountability Plans to see that districts’ publicly-developed budgeting and planning documents provide services for low-income students and English learners and address academic priorities;
  • Serving as an appeals board for expelled students and charter schools denied approval by local districts.

Of the $3.4 billion in total funding that county offices received in 2014-15, about $1 billion was in general funding from the Local Control Funding Formula. Before the passage of the funding formula in 2013, most of the state’s funding was in restricted money for specific purposes, called categorical grants, such as running regional vocational programs. The funding formula agreement allowed county offices to keep all of the categorical money they received and spend it however they chose. About $650 million in “optional services” that the county offices have provided would go directly to school districts under the LAO plan.

The LAO would also transfer to districts $300 million that the counties have received to run court and county community schools. Many districts might turn around and contract with the counties. But others might contract with a nonprofit, another county office or run the community schools for at-risk students themselves if they felt the students would be better served.

The current system, the LAO said, has shortcomings, because districts have “limited incentives” to oversee the quality of students’ education in court and county community schools. Under the proposed system, districts would be held accountable for students’ academic performance and would have a bigger stake in their progress.

After a few years of transition to the new system, counties would be guaranteed only about $50 million of the $1 billion in funding formula dollars they’re now getting. That money would pay for monitoring districts’ fiscal health and overseeing the LCAP process and new school accountability system.

Birdsall said the report understated the costs of these responsibilities. He projected it would cost $65 million next year to oversee LCAPs and the new accountability standards, not the $20 million in the report.

Although he said he is all for the Legislature clarifying county offices’ purpose, Birdsall said the LAO analysts mischaracterize county offices’ work. It makes sense for county offices to educate incarcerated and expelled students, and it’s not a function that districts want, he said. County offices step in when districts face emergencies and provide accounting and other business functions that small districts can’t handle, he said.

County offices take on responsibilities that aren’t required by law, such as informing district officials about curriculum changes and policies at the state level, he said, adding that expectations have grown over the decades.

But the LAO said that the Local Control Funding Formula increased money for counties while removing restrictions that were designed for specific purposes. Shifting funding to districts, the report said, would provide a stronger incentive for county offices “to offer helpful, high-quality services” and create a system that more clearly defines their role.

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