Aiming to fund its schools more efficiently and effectively, California has chosen an unusual, lead-from-behind approach that provides more state money to districts, but pushes communities to hold their local schools accountable for how that aid is used and for student performance.
How this looks in practice varies widely, as districts throughout California put the state’sand new, locally driven accountability plans into full effect this school year.
Supporters say the new system, approved by state lawmakers last year, eliminates the state government’s often-suffocating and in many cases ineffective dominance over K-12 spending. They also argue it acknowledges and empowers the diversity in the state’s approximately 1,000 districts and 11,000 public schools.
“It’s the first time I’ve known that a state is trying to intervene in this deep way to influence the local budget process in order to improve education,” Michael W. Kirst, the president of the California State Board of Education, said in an interview here.
The 2013 law creating California’s Local Control Funding Formula for state school aid was made possible in part by Proposition 30, a tax increase approved by voters in 2012. It provides added funding to all districts over an eight-year period, and will be fully implemented in the 2020-21 school year. Under the law, the state’s base per-pupil funding levels by grade span in 2020-21 will be:
In addition to the base amount, the formula is intended to funnel additional money to districts and charter schools based on how many students they have in particular categories, such as low-income students, English-language learners, and students in foster care.
• Supplemental Grant
All districts and charter schools will receive an additional 20 percent of the state’s base per-pupil funding amount for each low-income student, English-language learner, and student in foster care that it enrolls.
• Concentration Grant
For a district or charter school in which at least 55 percent of total enrollment consists of the three categories of students specified above, the state will provide an additional 50 percent of the base per-pupil funding level for each student above that 55-percent threshold.
Local Control Accountability Plans
Districts and charter schools must show how schools will address eight state priorities:
• Assignment and full credentialing of teachers
• Implementation of academic standards, including the Common Core State Standards
• Parental involvement
• Pupil achievement (state standardized tests, college- and career-readiness measures, and English-learner-reclassification rates, among other measures)
• Pupil engagement
• School climate
• Access to broad courses of study
• Student outcomes (ACT and SAT scores, and measures of success in subjects such as physical education and the arts)
Sources: California Legislative Analyst’s Office; Education Week
But local officials are quick to point out that, even with the increased state funding, it will take several years for state aid just to match what it was a half-dozen years ago, before the Great Recession triggered drastic cuts. It’s not clear that many districts are exploring new approaches to instruction instead of focusing on rebuilding prior programs and staff positions. And some worry that districts falling short of what they should be accomplishing, particularly when it comes to struggling students, won’t be identified often enough or required to change their approaches.
“It’s a lot like turning the Titanic,” said Heather Marano, a school PTA president in the 2,200-student Millbrae district, south of San Francisco. “We haven’t really seen its implications yet.”
Using New Resources
The new funding formula, which began in the 2013-14 school year, increases the state’s per-student allocation over an eight-year period, until 2020-21. It directs additional funds to schools with high concentrations of traditionally challenged and low-performing populations, such as low-income students, English-language learners, and those in foster care.
In conjunction with the formula, the state has also required districts to create three-year, or LCAPS. In these plans, in use for the first time this school year, districts must show how they are targeting those disadvantaged students while also addressing eight state educational priorities. In the process, local leaders must demonstrate that they are engaging and involving the general public, not just traditional advocates and interest groups, in fundamentally new ways.
As part of the shift to the new system, the state also eliminated the majority of the categorical programs it used to fund—and control—various academic and other services in schools.
When Mechale Murphy, the principal of Irene B. West Elementary School in the 62,000-student Elk Grove Unified district, south of Sacramento, examined her students’ reading scores on state tests in recent years, she was troubled that the results for 3rd graders often lagged behind those from other grade levels. She also wanted to update English-language-learner curriculum materials to make sure they were aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Nearly a third of the school’s 1,200 students are English-language learners.
This school year, she’s trying to use herand additional funds to address those, and other, academic issues.
During one October lesson at Irene B. West, Fabienne Fowler was instructing 3rd graders who were the lowest performers on California’s English-language proficiency test for English-learners. Ms. Fowler, the school’s testing coordinator for English-learners, asked the students what it meant to visualize what they were reading and if they agreed or disagreed with what others in the class said.
“When we visualize as we read, we’re going to think of or imagine a picture in our mind. A picture is just like a movie, right? Except the movie has moving pictures,” Ms. Fowler told the class.
The additional funds from the new funding formula made it possible for Ms. Murphy to hire Ms. Fowler this school year, and also to equip her classroom with new materials, ranging from an overhead projector to updated common-core aligned materials for English-learners.
“We really refined our practice throughout the school, but 3rd grade I think has gotten the most training,” Ms. Murphy said.
There’s good reason for that. Ms. Fowler’s work is a small part of a major theme in the district’s accountability plan, in which Elk Grove aims to increase the share of all students demonstrating proficiency in reading in grades 1-3 by 5 percent by 2017.
Donna Cherry, an associate superintendent in Elk Grove, said the district’s “on-grade level reading” goal translated into $1 million this year in new districtwide expenditures that, in turn, relate to another district accountability goal: gradually increasing the share of English-learners who improve by one level of English proficiency on the state exam from 59 percent in 2014-15 to 63 percent in 2016-17. And when it comes to common-core implementation, a top state priority, teachers will receive an additional three days of professional development this year to improve reading instruction aligned to the standards.
“The English-language development, common core, early literacy, our math training, should all go hand-in-hand,” said Ms. Cherry.
In addition to the more intense outreach to community groups, Elk Grove also tried to include parents in strengthening academic instruction. For example, the district is providing tutorials to help parents understand the standards and how they affect children’s lessons and homework.
Updated budget projections released last month by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office show that $2 billion inin fiscal 2015 could be made available to public schools as well as community colleges. But Ms. Cherry pointed out that under the formula, after adjusting for inflation, her district’s base per-pupil aid is slated to be the same in 2020-21 as it was in 2007-08, before the Great Recession triggered cuts to K-12. (The formula, when fully implemented, is designed to guarantee that level of funding restoration to districts.)
Ms. Cherry said the relatively long timeline for the three-year local accountability plans, which can be adjusted annually, helps the district’s planning. “It’s more than a one-year picture,” she said.
Mr. Kirst said the new finance system should push K-12 advocacy groups to shift their focus away from influencing legislation and policy in Sacramento, and instead strengthen their presence in and knowledge of various districts.
“We need much more bottom-up, grass-roots politics. In some ways, there’s a theory of democracy here: The more people you get involved locally, the more you get diverse voices locally, and the more that will work,” Mr. Kirst said.
Shelly Masur, a member of the school board for the Redwood City district, said for her 9,000-student district (where 50 percent of the students are English-learners and 70 percent come from low-income backgrounds), that new emphasis on grass-roots outreach translated into very specific steps.
For example, in addition to reaching out to traditional parent groups, the district called, emailed, and texted each parent where the relevant contact information was available. Altogether, she said, about 2,000 of some 5,000 parents responded in some way to the district’s outreach.
She considers that a strong response rate, but says there’s still a learning curve for her districts’ parents, who have long felt that there are “have” and “have not” schools in Redwood City. Reducing class size, for example, is a top priority for community members, she said.
“It’s a very different process to be truly advising the district on how it spends its money if you’re not in a place where you [have] a sense of how the district has spent its money over X number of years, or if you’re not thinking about the whole district,” Ms. Masur said.
At Redwood City’s Garfield Elementary School in Menlo Park, where all students are classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged and 91 percent are English-learners, according to, the district’s accountability-plan goal of having one computing device for every three students is translating into new Google Chromebooks that travel from classroom to classroom. They serve two purposes: improving literacy instruction, and providing devices the school will use to take state assessments aligned to the common-core standards.
Jennifer Williams’ class of 30 4th graders is using them to write journal entries and work on reading projects, while simultaneously improving their grammar and typing skills. “They don’t have access to computers,” she said of many students at the school.
The school’s principal, Michelle Griffith, said technology is just one area the school is trying to rebuild after recent budget cuts stripped away a variety of services. Garfield has reinstituted summer school, a reaction to a parent survey that found increased summer programming to be a top priority. Additional reading interventions during the regular school year are being made possible by $140,000 in new funds.
“The dramatic change is that it is a completely different way to allocate funds” in a more structured and detailed way, Ms. Griffith said.
The Redwood City district has tried to increase the reach of new funds with support from organizations it already had relationships with, from Pivot Learning Partners, a San Francisco-based K-12 consulting firm, and Startup:Education, a nonprofit group founded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that helps improve schools’ Internet infrastructure, among other priorities.
But many rural districts can’t tap into those kinds of robust, community-based organizations, said Carrie Hahnel, the director of research and policy analysis at the Education Trust-West, an advocacy group in Oakland. “There are districts where there is no local advocacy,” she said.
Speaking to the state school board, before the final rules for local accountability plans were approved, lawyer John Affeldt expressed his concerns about districts’ inability to demonstrate strong and detailed spending and action plans across all eight state priorities. “No [plan] that I’ve reviewed this year did that,” said Mr. Affeldt, a managing attorney at Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization in San Francisco.
In many cases, especially for charter schools worried about having their charters reauthorized, districts created modest goals or used relatively vague language to describe their actions, said Ms. Hahnel.
And the state’s light touch when it comes to measuring districts’ progress and intervention programs strikes some advocates as abdicating a key oversight role.
“There is no formal review of the plans to make sure that districts are meeting them. There are no clear performance standards across the state yet,” Ms. Hahnel said. “I think it’s a misnomer that the state keeps calling them accountability plans.”
There’s a wide range of reactions among community members to how districts are handling both the new formula and the mandate for greater outreach on accountability.
At an October meeting of local PTA representatives at the San Mateo County office of education (which covers Redwood City and several other districts), Keiko Smith, a community schools liaison for the 17th District PTA in San Mateo County, called the new approach a “great idea” and praised the increased outreach to parents of English-language learners. She said, however, that early implementation of the new system has been inevitably rocky.
Jill Fair, the president of the Burlingame district PTA council, said parents are still adjusting to the new language in the formula and accountability plan, noting, “There’s a lot of education-ese.”
Van Nguyen-Do, the president of the San Mateo-Foster City Council of PTAs, said that missing just one of the school board meetings on accountability could put parents behind.
“Who holds the district accountable? How far as a parent can you take it?” Ms. Nguyen-Do asked. “All these questions are not just process questions, but they’re very substantive. Because a lot of times the process makes the substance in this case.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 10, 2014 edition of Education Week as Calif.'s K-12 Aid Shift Takes Root