Two legal advocacy groups that have bird-dogged districts’ spending for a decade under the state’s education funding formula are calling for significant changes they say are vital for students the law is intended to serve.
They join Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is also urging a big expansion of the Local Control Funding Formula on its 10th anniversary, including more funding for high-poverty schools. In pursuit of more equitable and transparent spending, both would broaden districts’ reporting requirements.
Public Advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California laid out their case for amending the funding formula in a 64-page report released earlier last month. It focuses on strengthening the three-year plan of action that all districts write detailing goals for student improvement and the actions and spending they’ll take to accomplish them. That document is the Local Control and Accountability Plan, the LCAP, which already runs dozens to hundreds of pages in some districts.
Newsom would rather channel money to high-needs students through schools instead of the districts.
Public Advocates and the ACLU cite other long-standing problems that should be addressed, including:
- Many school districts go through the motion of engaging parents and students in writing their LCAPs but don’t take their suggestions seriously.
- Many districts bunch big spending items together, making it impossible to track specific commitments.
- Districts provide a minimum time between presenting their LCAPs and voting on them, cutting debate short.
- Many districts don’t include enough money in the LCAPs to show how they are meeting their full obligations under state law.
“Overall, we’re still supportive of LCFF and the promise it holds for increasing equitable outcomes in our state,” said John Affeldt, managing attorney for Public Advocates, “but that hinges on the LCAP working. We need to make sure it functions as intended.”
Among their recommendations to fix it, Public Advocates and the ACLU call for:
- Strengthening requirements for districts to consider the perspectives of parents, students and the community when writing the LCAP. The state should require more time for the public to review the draft LCAP and for school boards to consider the public’s suggestions; districts should spend more money to expand their outreach to the public.
- Monitoring county offices of education, which are responsible for certifying districts’ LCAPs, to ensure they are doing their jobs. Recognizing that this work can be time-consuming, the report also calls for more funding to provide county offices with additional staff.
- Requiring that the LCAP include not only funding provided through the funding formula but also billions of dollars from all federal and state revenue sources that districts use to address the funding law’s broadly defined priorities for student success. These would include, for example, community schools’ efforts for counseling, tutoring and mental health.
About 80% of TK-12 funding from the state’s general fund is funneled through the Local Control Funding Formula. On top of base funding, an additional 20% is distributed according to the number of a district’s or charter school’s “high-needs” students, which the law defines as students from low-income families, English learners and foster youths.
As its name implies, the funding formula cedes more control over spending decisions to local school boards. But in return, the law obligated districts to engage parents on how money should be spent to meet eight priorities for improvement. Besides student achievement, they include student engagement, family involvement, school climate and basic school conditions, which includes equitable distribution of well-qualified teachers.
Former Gov. Jerry Brown, the funding formula’s champion, quashed any effort to amend it as long as he was governor, saying it should be given time to work. At the same time, the State Board of Education, charged with rolling out the law, has regularly tweaked the LCAP’s requirements and template. It has added the requirement that districts create an overview for parents and expenditure tables to track spending. A change that went into effect this year requires districts to permanently commit unspent funding for high-needs students, not funnel it to the general fund, as many districts had been doing. Public Advocates and the ACLU maintain these actions don’t go far enough to fix fundamental flaws.
Newsom adds focus on schools
Now in his second term, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced ambitious changes as part of his 2023-24 budget.
The funding formula currently focuses on improving the performance of low-achieving students at the district level. Responding to criticism that districts have not paid enough attention and money to schools that high-needs students attend, Newsom proposes an additional $300 million in permanent funding, which he calls an “equity multiplier.” It would go to about 800 of the highest-poverty schools. He would broaden the LCAP to require improvement plans for not only equity multiplier schools but all schools where student groups score very low on state performance metrics. These groups include students with disabilities, English learners and racial and ethnic
Affeldt said Public Advocates supports Newsom’s equity multiplier approach, but believes it will come up short unless the state addresses weaknesses in monitoring, transparency and accountability.
Expanding the LCAP to include revenue sources outside of the funding formula will be contentious. In the last several years, Newsom has committed more than $15 billion to specific purposes that are exempt from LCAP reporting: community schools, before -and after-school extended learning, and broadly defined learning recovery from Covid. Newsom’s advisers have argued that most of the funding is targeted to low-income students, consistent with the intent of the funding formula, and is mostly one-time funding, capturing a post-Covid surge in state revenue.
But the trend is “increasingly problematic,” the report argues, since the programs have different reporting periods or minimum accountability requirements, in the case of federal Covid funding, making it hard for the public to know how huge amounts of money will be spent.
“If the goal of comprehensive strategic planning is to ‘evaluate the hard choices [districts] must make about the use of limited resources,’ all actions and expenditures that contribute towards state priority goals should be included,” the report said, citing the state’s instructions for the LCAP. If forced to scour multiple documents to see how their district is dealing with chronic absenteeism or budgeting for mental health, for example, frustrated parents will give up on the LCAP, the report said.
Critics say the additional reporting requirements could overload an already complex and often overwhelming document — especially for thousands of small districts where often a single administrator may be responsible for writing the LCAP and the 20 plans that districts must complete for new state and federal programs.
“More is not always better,” said Corey Greenlaw, associate director for LCAP and compliance for the Fresno County Office of Education. “The LCAP risks becoming an unwieldy document, and that’s a concern for us. We want to get it as efficient and lean as we can, so it’s more useful and usable to parents.”
“There’s no requirement that money from other sources be included in the LCAP,” he said. “That’s an option that districts have for clarity.”
Matt Navo, executive director of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, a state agency that the Local Control Funding Formula established to help school districts improve, said, “It’s always a good thing when you can create a system that allows people to easily see how dollars that are equipping students may be better used.”
But, he added, “as a tool for continuous improvement, the LCAP was never designed to be the be-all, end-all for every reporting question that people might have.”
Newsom’s equity multiplier proposal also could greatly increase the length of many districts’ LCAPs by requiring adding dozens of school plans for student groups in individual schools. As a way to streamline the LCAP, the nonpartisan Legislative Advocate’s Office suggests creating an interactive online portal where LCAP expenditure data would be moved; users could choose the level of financial detail they want to explore.
The Public Advocates/ACLU report urges something similar — investing in “an innovative, web-based comprehensive planning platform” that would consolidate LCAP and other budgetary reporting. It should enable advocates and parents to compare districts’ LCAP spending priorities — something they can’t do now.
It’s unclear whether a proposed electronic version is realistic — and whether it could be both less complicated and more transparent. Greenlaw said he anticipates it would be complex and difficult to create. Navo suggested piloting an electronic template within one county and seeing if it produces the desired results.
Parent engagement is critical
Effective parent and community engagement and shared decision-making are, as the report notes, “cornerstones” of local control.” Most districts adhere to most of the funding law’s minimum requirements for engagement, but not its spirit. And yet researchers found that only one-quarter of the 20 districts provided responses to suggestions of parent committees, as the law requires; most LCAPs don’t say which were adopted and which were ignored.
The Legislature has appropriated $100 million for a statewide LCAP engagement initiative, led by the San Bernardino County Office of Education. Over three years, 44 districts have participated; Public Advocates and the ACLU urge more districts to get involved.
The report makes numerous recommendations. To give parents more time to give feedback and the school board more time to consider it, the funding law should be amended to require at least a week or two between when an LCAP is presented at a public hearing and its adoption by the board.
It says districts should invest in getting the community involved by hiring staff to engage students and families, hiring community-based organizations to support engagement and providing stipends for parents and students to develop their leadership skills to co-lead engagement events.
It should empower county offices of education to monitor and even reject LCAPs when districts fail to follow legal requirements, such as publicly posting LCAP documents, holding public hearings and regular meetings with parent LCAP committees.
The report highlighted “bright spots” of engagement, such as San Diego Unified’s translation of LCAP presentations into seven languages, Sacramento City Unified’s series of community listening sessions on how to support high-needs students, and Los Angeles Unified’s agreement to expand its Black Student Achievement Plan based on students’ suggestions.
But Alma Cervantes can testify that it can take years to build effective parent engagement by breaking down school districts’ resistance and building the confidence of low-income parents to view themselves as partners “in developing strategies that get to the root causes of inequities for students.”
Cervantes is the regional education equity and justice director of the nonprofit Building Healthy Communities-Monterey County, which has focused its work in Salinas and small school districts in Soledad and Alisal, where parents now elect school representatives to the District Advisory Committee and conduct parent training.
“Districts don’t have the bandwidth and capacity to really understand community engagement because it creates more work to step out of your comfort zone and create a culture of belonging,” she said.
Every school should be required to have a year-round work plan for parent engagement, with goals, deliverables and timeframes, she said. Otherwise, parents will feel overlooked by a district’s rush every June to pass an LCAP, she said.
How widespread are problems?
Researchers examined 72 LCAPs for 2022-23, including all districts in Monterey and San Bernardino counties. Researchers intensely focused on 20 districts; they included the state’s four largest districts — Los Angeles, San Diego, Fresno and Long Beach, as well as Oakland and two small districts: Del Norte Unified in Del Norte County and Loleta Union Elementary School Distinct in Humboldt County.
Among the findings:
- Nearly a quarter of the districts budgeted less funding for services for high-needs students than the amount of funding they received for those students.
- Although districts are required to include base funding when explaining how they are meeting the eight state priorities, 51 districts (71%) included less than half of their budget in the LCAP.
- Districts frequently bundled large amounts of spending on multiple programs, making it hard to know how money would be spent. As an example, Anaheim Union High School District said it would spend $15.9 million on staff “to support the mental, physical, behavioral and emotional health of vulnerable students to reduce student suspensions, improve student learning, and promote well-being,” according to the report.
Public Advocates has filed LCAP complaints over the years with several districts for underspending for high-needs students. In the report, Public Advocates and ACLU said that county offices of education routinely fall short of their duties by approving LCAPs that do not adhere to the LCAP template or the expenditure regulations; one-third of the districts in the report had incomplete LCAPs after their county review, it said.
The California County Superintendents, which represents the state’s county offices, disputes that conclusion. The reports’ findings are based on a sampling of districts and county offices, not the majority, and shouldn’t be generalized, said Lindsay Tornatore, director of systems improvement and student success for the California County Superintendents. “You can’t say that these findings are statistically sound because they’re not.”
No one, including the county superintendents organization and the California Department of Education, has done a comprehensive analysis of LCAPs. There is no manageable way to dissect and aggregate disparate data from 1,000 districts. Jerry Brown intended it that way, to encourage districts to be independent without state interference.
There isn’t a database of LCAPs. It’s what people can gather from district or county office websites by scraping (the data),” said Julien Lafortune, a research fellow for the Public Policy Institute of California.
But Lafortune said the findings in the Public Advocates/ACLU report were consistent with what others have observed, including former California State Auditor Elaine Howle. She was highly critical of districts’ spending and a lack of transparency in a 2019 analysis of only three districts’ LCAPs. Lafortune’s own work in 2021, which found that only 55% of funding for high-needs students made it to the schools they attended, provides research supporting Newsom’s equity multiplier.
Tornatore said the County Superintendents Association is taking the report seriously and plans to meet soon with Public Advocates. If the governor and the Legislature have guidance for LCAP monitoring, “we would appreciate clear expectations” in statute”, she said, because county offices are “often left to be the interpreters and the implementers of the ed code.”
She added that the county superintendents appreciate the report’s call for more resources and support to county offices, because the LCAP “is one of the most challenging, complex pieces of our educational system, without a doubt.”
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Tarra Knotts 2 months ago2 months ago
I am very glad that folks are paying attention to how poorly LCFF is working. It needs help. I have to say, every time I hear that more funding is going to those districts with a high level of need (lots of unduplicated pupils/at risk youth/foster/homeless, etc) I think "What about districts like ours? Does our struggle not matter? Does no one care? Does no one notice?" I'm in a low revenue district with very … Read More
I am very glad that folks are paying attention to how poorly LCFF is working. It needs help. I have to say, every time I hear that more funding is going to those districts with a high level of need (lots of unduplicated pupils/at risk youth/foster/homeless, etc) I think “What about districts like ours? Does our struggle not matter? Does no one care? Does no one notice?”
I’m in a low revenue district with very little “personal wealth” families but set in a high cost of living area. We are not so rare. There are other districts like ours. We get the lowest amount LCFF will give per child (~9-10K/child) since we don’t have a lot of unduplicated kids. We don’t qualify for concentration grants, etc.
This ~9-10k/child is simply not enough. If I understand correctly, most of those funds go to salaries/benefits and in a high cost of living area, that limits the number of salaries and the amount of salaries too much. It is not sustainable without other mechanisms to bring in funds. Some districts like ours have large education foundation that indirectly help the gap of funds. Some areas have large parcel taxes and bonds. Some get some corporate donations for things like sports fields/yards, which offsets district costs. Our area has none of this.
Our community funds about ~$50/child via the education foundation whereas others fund ~$2,000/child. That is all we can get from our families as they are “just making it.” We do not have a large parcel tax. Our neighboring district chose not to even try to do a parcel tax raise recently as they don’t feel their community can afford it…they are in a similar situation and we share a high school district.
Our district can only afford to pay teachers the lowest amount in our county. This has been the case for years. At this point, we are losing teachers to high salaries rapidly and can only afford the newest of teachers/therapists/specialists, sometimes not fully credentialed. This makes lots of kids not have their needs met. Kids with social-emotional or learning needs have no supports or brand new all the time, some which are contracted from out of the country and have some language challenges. Even though these folks are lovely, when a child has learning struggles, it adds a barrier to their access to learning. It impacts FAPE (free and appropriate public education). There is no continuity of care /learning year to year. I am so tired of this pain for our kids. It is heartbreaking.
The distinct does the best it can with the least amount of employees it can. For safety and social-emotional reasons, we desperately need at least part time vice principals and cannot afford them. We desperately need the district office to have a few more staff so needs are met. We cannot afford them. We need more school wide social-emotional support staff so that the one counselor we were given can actually help those kids with more chronic needs. Right now, that one counselor per site is stretched too thin to help anyone.
LCFF as it is making our district slip into something akin to a negative bank balance. Our overall district budget is such that many years we cannot keep the recommended reserve/spare funds. We are predicted to have about a 3% reserve the year after this. This was the trend prior to the pandemic too, but onetime funds stopped the downward trend for a bit. If our district keeps needing to spend more than it gets via LCFF and local taxes, I understand the office of ed will audit and urge cuts but as far as I can tell (and I’m a pretty involved veteran parent) there is nothing to squeeze.
We have always been a “do a lot with a little” district (one that folks stayed and taught in because it was a sweet connected community) and now we are headed towards “do too little because we only get too little from LCFF”. We are not a wasteful district. We are a district with a lot of kiddos and teachers not liking school right now because their needs are not being met more and more and yet…if LCFF stays as it is, our kids and teachers will have to do with even less. I see this putting us at risk for some very upset individuals. We already know what happens when people do not get basic needs met.
So to those looking at LCFF, please look not just at the highest need schools but also those in the middle with the least funding per child. Are schools really succeeding with that base amount per child? Honestly? Are kids needs truly being met and are teachers/staff really able to be hired/retained on that small amount per child or is the calculation relying on foundation funds or local parcel taxes? Is that actually how public schools were meant to work? Do you really want to force district to come up with ideas like work force housing/becoming landlords because there is no other way to keep teachers/staff?
It doesn’t make sense. I feel like our school districts are having to find ways to bring in profits (not via taxes). That can’t be right. It is public education still. I hope.
Dick Jung 2 months ago2 months ago
Thanks, John, for your characteristically thoughtful and thorough coverage of an important and rather complex topic in this clear and insightful way in this piece. I'm very much reminded of what Jerry Brown told me in his very last weekend in office: "Governor Brown: I like to distinguish people between those who live in advocacy and those who live in the inquiry. Yes, we can do a little of both, but you need a … Read More
Thanks, John, for your characteristically thoughtful and thorough coverage of an important and rather complex topic in this clear and insightful way in this piece.
I’m very much reminded of what Jerry Brown told me in his very last weekend in office:
“Governor Brown: I like to distinguish people between those who live in advocacy and those who live in the inquiry. Yes, we can do a little of both, but you need a very strong measure of inquiry to take account of the life and its many complexities. Michael’s been a good partner in that endeavor.”
We both know the “Michael” to whom Jerry Brown refers is Michael Kirst. We can only hope that Governor Newsom has that same sort of analytically balanced confidant and advisor.
John Fensterwald 2 months ago2 months ago
Thanks, Dick. There’d be no Local Control Funding Formula without Jerry Brown and Mike Kirst working in tandem, as you document thoroughly at your website, the Mike Kirst Biography Project (where readers can also buy the bio, with proceeds going to EdSource).
Jay 2 months ago2 months ago
Simply stated, the intended LCAP is not reaching the intended students.
I have a current student who is proficient in Spanish, but speaks limited English. The student has been placed in a college prep social science class since an EL equivalent is not offered. The district has chosen to not purchase a Spanish version of the textbook. How can this student successfully complete this course without resources in a language they understand?
Eric Premack 2 months ago2 months ago
The fact of the matter is that with 90 percent or more of a typical school district's budget spent on employee compensation, real spending decisions are made at the collective bargaining table, behind closed doors, with zero parent involvement, often years before budgets are drafted/adopted. Subsequent budget and LCAP adoption processes are largely pre-programmed and involving parents at this stage largely is window dressing. Until ACLU and Public Advocates "get" this key point, … Read More
The fact of the matter is that with 90 percent or more of a typical school district’s budget spent on employee compensation, real spending decisions are made at the collective bargaining table, behind closed doors, with zero parent involvement, often years before budgets are drafted/adopted. Subsequent budget and LCAP adoption processes are largely pre-programmed and involving parents at this stage largely is window dressing.
Until ACLU and Public Advocates “get” this key point, they will continue to spin their wheels.
Jim 2 months ago2 months ago
Employee comp is usually in the 83%-88% range of operational budgets. The key question is whether the people hired are working with students or just lounging at the central office.
Jay 2 months ago2 months ago
Completely agree about the money spent on teachers, support staff, and instructional assistants in direct contact with with students. Employees should be classified as working directly with students (teachers, IAs, etc.) or indirectly with students (administrators, office staff, athletic directors, custodial, health aides, district office employees). The employees with direct contact for part of the day should have that percentage factored in. Later, the same concept could applied to employees in direct contact with … Read More
Completely agree about the money spent on teachers, support staff, and instructional assistants in direct contact with with students. Employees should be classified as working directly with students (teachers, IAs, etc.) or indirectly with students (administrators, office staff, athletic directors, custodial, health aides, district office employees). The employees with direct contact for part of the day should have that percentage factored in. Later, the same concept could applied to employees in direct contact with EL, foster, and low income populations per LCAP requirements.
Dr. Bill Conrad 2 months ago2 months ago
Excellent and very informative reporting! Less is certainly more when it comes to the LCAPs. Clearly many school districts are in the equivalent of the educational emergency room with abysmal student academic achievement especially for students of color. It would be best for school districts to focus on a very few systemic student goals that align with the improvement and monitoring of a few professional practices rather than the plethora of activities identified in the bloated … Read More
Excellent and very informative reporting!
Less is certainly more when it comes to the LCAPs. Clearly many school districts are in the equivalent of the educational emergency room with abysmal student academic achievement especially for students of color.
It would be best for school districts to focus on a very few systemic student goals that align with the improvement and monitoring of a few professional practices rather than the plethora of activities identified in the bloated bureaucratic LCAPs that are filled with educationese that the average citizen can not even understand.
The LCAPs should be student goal focused. Often these documents substitute means for ends. For example, technology is a means to achieve student academic success. Parent engagement is also a means to achieve student academic success.
School Districts have very little bandwidth to address massive gaps in professional practices, curricula, and assessments. There is also very limited ability to implement system-wide, monitor, and hold accountable.
State leadership within the CDE needs to take a firmer hand in ensuring that school districts stay focused on a few research-based and aligned practices. The state needs to take back some of the control from districts to make sure that the LCAPs are aligned with a few professional practices, differentiate ends from means, maintain a laser focus on student academic achievement, implement the plan well, monitor, and hold accountable.
Engagement of parents can only go so far with a patient in the education emergency room. Parents have an expectation that schools will treat their children well and ensure their academic achievement. It’s a fairly simple equation. It is up to the educators to meet these basic parent needs. Based on the current student academic achievement, we can see that the educators have failed the parents and children.
Do a few things well in order to save the patient. In other words, it’s on the educators to educate the children.
Jim 2 months ago2 months ago
An excellent article, thank you EdSource. Of course the current situation was entirely foreseeable when the evil Torlakson signed a letter encouraging districts to do whatever they wanted with LCFF money. A situation that was highlighted in EdSource. While these suggestions are a good start districts will always spend money is a way that benefits themselves and their allies. Building the central office empire is a popular pastime. It may be that a central office … Read More
An excellent article, thank you EdSource. Of course the current situation was entirely foreseeable when the evil Torlakson signed a letter encouraging districts to do whatever they wanted with LCFF money. A situation that was highlighted in EdSource. While these suggestions are a good start districts will always spend money is a way that benefits themselves and their allies. Building the central office empire is a popular pastime. It may be that a central office “overhead” limit needs to be established. A disproportionate amount of spending on central admin, compared to other similar districts, should automatically prompt an audit.
Todd Maddison 2 months ago2 months ago
True on most, but "it's all about overhead" is a straw man that doesn't exist. Certainly there is bloated overhead. No doubt about it. Part of that is required to deal with all the little state-mandated requirements and reporting. Streamlining that would be a great thing. But meanwhile if you look at your local district's payroll numbers (available on Transparent California) you can see that a pretty small percentage of actual cost … Read More
True on most, but “it’s all about overhead” is a straw man that doesn’t exist.
Certainly there is bloated overhead. No doubt about it. Part of that is required to deal with all the little state-mandated requirements and reporting. Streamlining that would be a great thing.
But meanwhile if you look at your local district’s payroll numbers (available on Transparent California) you can see that a pretty small percentage of actual cost is in administration.
In aggregate, the latest numbers we have show 8.51% of total labor cost is administrative.
Certainly that could be reduced, but we have the same issue here we have in national budgeting – the real issue is the cost of things that no one wants to talk about.
The real issue is the cost of bonus raises given to certificated and classified groups.
In most districts you could cut the administration in half (probably an unreasonable thing) and still barely cover the cost of one single bonus raise given to employees. And that’s just one bonus raise, not bonus raises every few years (as happens…)
Median total compensation of school employees has grown to far exceed income of comparably educated private employees, but yet the demands for “more, more, more” for “me, me, me” continue to come.
That’s the real problem.