The latest study of California’s revised K-12 funding formula finds that local education officials welcome the more than $15 billion in new money the formula has shifted toward school districts since 2013, as well as the added flexibility it gives them to make locally based spending decisions.
But researchers from the Local Control Funding Formula Research Collaborative—which based its findings on eight widely varied districts around the state—also raised concerns about oversight and confusion on the part of some school systems about how some pots of money should be spent and about the law’s goals in the area of spending equity.
“There are still some very significant obstacles that are getting in the way of achieving the goals of LCFF,” said Julie Marsh, a professor at the University of Southern California, one of the researchers involved in the collaborative.
California politicians passed the latest funding formula in 2013, replacing a restrictive one that critics said didn’t recognize the diverse nature of California.
The new formula is intended to give local officials more freedom to spend based on their own communities’ needs. The new formula was also meant to fix spending disparities between schools with high concentrations of students with special needs and those without.The formula has been described as a revolutionary one that recognizes inequities between different types of students and scales back the state’s role in telling districts how to spend their state funding. Districts with foster students, low-income students, and English-language learners were given more money than others, and school officials are now required to show that they engaged community members in making decisions.
The state will spend $72 billion on K-12 and community colleges this year, compared with $47 billion in 2011.
The latest study, the third of its kind from the collaborative of independent and university researchers, looks at districts of varying sizes, demographics, and governance models among California’s 1,022 districts, to determine how administrators, teachers, and community members have responded to the Local Control Funding Formula. None of the districts were identified in the study.
Researchers found that local officials in the eight districts appreciated the new money and powers, and there were signs that struggling students in many instances were getting more-tailored supports through the funding formula.
But the researchers also found some instances of misspending, such as money intended only for poor students being spent on Advanced Placement courses for all students and on new school building construction. They also said that rural districts, in particular, lacked the capacity to engage stakeholders and that many of those administrators seemed confused over the technicalities and purpose of some components of the formula.
The study also found that, in some instances, community members and even school board members of the districts reviewed aren’t engaged in the budget-making process.
“LCFF didn’t result in greater coherence in strategic planning and budgeting,” said Daniel Humphrey, an independent consultant who worked on the report.
For example, as California implemented the Common Core State Standards, only three of the districts studied spent their money on materials or comprehensive support systems for their teachers to roll out the new standards.
One of the researchers, Julia Koppich of J. Koppich & Associates, warned other states against using California as a cookie-cutter model as many of them look to overhaul their funding formulas.
“Context matters,” Koppich said. “California had particularly solid political alliances [between local and state officials and political parties], a robust economy, and widespread consensus that there needed to be a new formula. Examine your own context and adapt, don’t adopt.”
Michael W. Kirst, the president of California’s state board of education, said many of the concerns raised in the study have been addressed with new information sent to districts that better explains the dynamics of the funding formula, forms for districts to complete, and training. He also said the new academic report card the state began providing local officials this year makes spending decisions more transparent for community members.
“We’re still working on this,” Kirst said. “This is a continuous improvement project. Where we’re able to make rapid changes, we will. But there’s nothing like this out there. There’s no model to work off of.”
The state expects innovation and capacity to expand as district officials and community members become more familiar with the formula and the department rolls out a new academic-accountability program. Because every district uses the formula’s flexibilities differently, it’s hard to draw sweeping conclusions about its success or pitfalls, said Janet Weeks, a spokeswoman for the state board of education.
The researchers, meanwhile, are urging the department to give districts even more guidance, training, and clarity over new rules.
“The state needs to redouble their efforts to clarify the intent of LCFF,” said Koppich. “The message hasn’t always been heard.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2017 edition of Education Week as Hurdles Remain for Calif. K-12 Funding Formula, Study Says