School & District Management Opinion

Local Control Funding Gets High Marks From Educators

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — October 28, 2014 4 min read
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Now, this is different: The California legislature passed a law, and people actually like it. They are trying hard to implement the spirit of the state’s new finance formula rather than trivialize it with minimum compliance behavior.

Such is the takeaway from a just released report by Daniel Humphrey and Julia Koppich. Their research, Toward a Grand Vision: Early Implementation of California’s Local Control Funding Formula, follows the law’s first year in 10 school districts: huge and small, urban and rural.

The funding formula (referred to as LCFF) passed by the legislature in 2013, eliminated most categorical programs that directed funds to very specific purposes and replaced them with supplementary funding attached to low-income students, English Learners, and foster youth. Districts with a high percentage of these students received an additional concentration grant.

LCFF represents a shift from a low-trust system of targeting dollars toward programs to a high-trust capacity building system inherent in Gov. Jerry Brown’s idea of subsidiarity, moving money and authority closer to the classroom. In the scheme of things, it’s a big idea.

As one big city superintendent was quoted as saying, “This governor and this state board [of education] did something that has never been done in the United States without a court case. It changed the distribution mechanism from an equality formula to an equity formula. ...I think that that unto itself is noteworthy, stunning, and amazing.”

The report contains both very good news and legitimate fears about the future of LCFF and its companion accountability program.

First, the good news

“I am much more convinced after the study that local districts are taking the idea very seriously,” Koppich said in an interview. “We talked to many people who were very thoughtful. Impressive.”

“Not a single person wanted to go back to categoricals,” she said.

The report, which brings timely feedback to the policy process, found that the budget process has begun to explicitly connect spending with teaching and learning.

Nearly all districts in the study shifted to joint fiscal-program teams to develop their budgets. Under the categorical funding system, district finance administrators would tell the curriculum and instruction administrators how much money they would be getting the following year. Those administrators would budget programs within the categorical restrictions. “This year we began the [budget development] process from ‘What do we need?’ rather than from ‘What can we afford?’” the report quoted one superintendent as saying.This change is crucial to improving education.

Researchers have known for decades that how districts spend money is crucial to student outcomes. In other words, smart money is important as well as more money. The Humphreys and Koppich report provides the first solid evidence that school districts are reacting to the LCFF program in the ways that the designers of the legislation intended.

The report also provided an insight into a second aspect of LCFF: making citizens and local education advocates both participants and watchdogs over how schools spend money. As the report notes, it is very early in the game:

Research on public engagement underscores the difficulty of achieving a deliberative democratic process, or, in other words, finding a way for citizens and their representatives to make justifiable decisions for the public good in the face of the fundamental disagreements that are inevitable in diverse societies. Parents naturally view district priorities through the lens of their child's best interests, advocacy groups advocate for their constituencies, and the majority of citizens have little or no experience with the kind of direct local democracy envisioned by the LCFF.

Now, the fears

If LCFF is audacious, empowering for school districts, and popular with educators what could derail its successful implementation? Three things: time, money, and distrust.

LCFF will take time, several years, to become fully implemented. Both educators and policy makers will make mistakes. The State Board of Education’s template for reporting how funds were aligned with educational priorities didn’t work as intended. And it has been replaced. Educators fear--both in the report and in meetings and conversations throughout the state--that they won’t be given time to self-correct.

And they fear that the money won’t last. Proposition 30, which boosted school revenues from the depths of the recession, is due to expire unless the legislature extends it. And the LCFF logic is based on projections of increasing tax revenues over several years. So far, those predictions have been accurate, but the new tax receipts have largely come from capital gains. Californian’s wages have been relatively flat.

But most significantly, in my view, educators fear that advocacy groups won’t trust schools enough to reset from the historic equality politics to the politics of creating equity. Equality politics were based on well-founded mistrust of school districts and educators. It was school boards that drew attendance boundaries that separated white children from black children. It was vocal professional class parents that got their local districts to favor enhanced programs for our children and ignore their children.

Targeted funds for disadvantaged children was the answer. Compliance data could be obtained, and the courts could be counted on to intervene giving advocates leverage over school districts. Categorical compliance created a good way of tracking money. But it created a terrible way of running schools. By the time LCFF was enacted, the old system had few supporters.

Building a higher-trust equity politics around LCFF will require both new measures of achievement and new ways of understanding whether districts are using their supplemental dollars for the benefit of the children in the groups that are part of what they are doing.

In other words, local control funding requires both trusting schools a bit and also trusting local democracies to monitor them.

(The research reported here was supported by the Stuart Foundation, which also supports ‘On California.’)

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.