English-Language Learners Highlight Balancing Act of California Budget

By Andrew Ujifusa — June 07, 2013 3 min read
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In my most recent story for Education Week about the California education budget proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown, I highlighted the political and policy environment that Brown must navigate for his K-12 spending plan to succeed. Brown, a Democrat, and others have said the state should reduce its bureaucratic role in overseeing public schools, and more decisions should be made at the local level.

But what does that mean for low-income and English-language-learner students, the two main student populations that Brown is focusing on? Remember, districts will get increasing amounts of state funds the more students in those groups they have enrolled, and districts consisting entirely of those three student groups (non-duplicated) could see a 42-percent boost in state support beyond the base per-student funding, through a new spending plan called the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF).

Shelly Spiegel-Coleman says she has an idea. Spiegel-Coleman, the executive director of Californians Together, a research and advocacy group for English-language learners in the state, says that Brown’s plan represents a potential improvement for those learning English in public schools, but doesn’t resolve significant concerns about just how much help those students would get. In the May version of Brown’s plan (which originally came out in January), the governor’s office stated that the extra funding for targeted student populations would have to “primarily” benefit the academic work of those students. The money would have to be allocated proportionally on a school-by-school basis. So, if a district has 1,000 students across those three demographic categories, and 100 of them attended School A and 500 of them attended School B, 10 percent of the extra funding would go to School A and 50 percent would go to School B, and so on.

What’s the concern? Spiegel-Coleman says that the state’s budget plan doesn’t spell out what “primarily” really means, especially statistically. She wondered if a district could spend 51 percent of the extra funding on academic services for ELL and low-income students. That would leave over a big chunk of the spending for other things, yet still allow the district to claim that, in terms of the numbers, the state’s extra funds provided through the LCFF were indeed spent “primarily” on those targeted students.

“There is no definition of what that is,” she told me. “That’s open to everybody’s own interpretation.”

And that encapsulates the challenge for the final K-12 spending plan, which has to be approved later this month. Brown wants to give districts more autonomy, but how much will they be trusted to deal with the very students the state says it cares about the most? There’s pressure from the other side as well. Dennis Meyers, the assistant executive director for government relations at the California School Boards Association, said to me that between January and May, Brown actually gave too much power to the state when it comes to overseeing how state funds are spent. He’s worried about a fiscal accountability team that could be too quick to whack districts that the team feels has stepped out of line. The focus, he said, should be on transparency and supporting schools and districts.

“There’s a lot of FF in the proposal right now, but not so much LC,” he said.

The budget situation in California is fluid and lawmakers’ versions of Brown’s plan are under consideration. But the tension does highlight an issue across states. How much should governors and state legislatures, brimming over with ideas about the best way to improve and support schools, balance their desire to intervene in districts and classrooms with the recognition that districts feel that they should maintain important prerogatives and make key decisions on their own?

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.