The recent press conference on California Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed 2018-19 budget revealed that the governor wants to increase funding to the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), his signature education finance program.
However, there are very significant problems with LCFF.
Prior to the enactment of the LCFF, funding California’s public schools was a complicated mix of general and restricted dollars, which even education experts found confusing and often nonsensical.
Under the LCFF, according to the California Department of Education, school districts receive “grade span-specific base grants” plus supplemental grants calculated on student demographic factors such as low-income status and non-English fluency. Districts, says the Department, have “greater flexibility to use these funds to improve student outcomes.” Yet have districts used this greater flexibility to improve student results?
A 2017 study of LCFF by Ed-Trust West found that while LCFF has made funding between high-poverty and low-poverty school districts more equitable, “It did not find evidence that this funding has yet translated into more equitable opportunities for students in low-income schools.”
“The highest poverty schools,” said Ed-Trust West, “Still have less access to crucial school support staff, and a rigorous and broad curriculum—in some cases these gaps have widened.”
Ryan Smith, executive director of EdTrust West, said that the feedback he has gotten from parents and community leaders throughout California is that “district leaders aren’t spending money in the best interest of kids who generate funds.”
Indeed, accountability has been a huge Achilles Heel for LCFF.
Under LCFF, districts are tasked with creating and implementing so-called Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAP). The state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) reviewed 50 LCAPs and found that districts rarely differentiate between new and ongoing actions, making it impossible to “determine whether districts were using the new funding generated under LCFF to pursue new actions to improve performance or to continue or expand prior activities.” In other words, innovation or the status quo – who knows?
CALmatters journalist Jessica Calefati asked the largest school districts with the most disadvantaged students about how they spent funds under LCFF. According to Calefati’s report: “More than half of the districts refused to respond to any questions about their finances. A few would only say how much extra money for needy students they had received—not how they had spent it. Others complained about the burden of the inquiry.”
Besides the lack of transparency, the LAO report also found that school-district accountability goals, in areas ranging from academic achievement to parental involvement to student engagement, were often “not targeted to areas in greatest need of improvement.”
Rather than real accountability, respected education consultant Michael Fullan has reported that the LCAP has become a cynical bureaucratic chase for more funding: “We develop the plan to check the box to get the money.”
The Public Policy Institute of California has noted that LCFF’s accountability “depends partly on stronger local pressure generated through the engagement of parents and the public.” Yet, there has been little significant parental input into accountability plans.
The LAO found that districts frequently lack clear metrics and targets for parental involvement.
Instead of real parental and public engagement, the LCAP is, according to state education official Carl Cohn, a document “that no one but county office of education bureaucrats will read.”
Bruce Fuller, education policy professor at UC Berkeley, sums up the state of Brown’s LCFF legacy: “The state has spent tens of billions of dollars trying to lift poor kids and not one penny evaluating whether any of it is working. That’s outrageous. We’re heading into year five. It’s time to discern what’s effective and where we’re just wasting money.”
Rather than simply shifting spending decisions from one level of government (the state) to another level of government (school districts), wouldn’t at least some of that money have been better spent empowering parents to choose the school for their children, public or private, that best meet their needs?