SAN FRANCISCO—California is at a critical juncture in potentially overhauling what many agree is the state’s “overly complex” and “inequitably distributed” public school funding system, said education experts at a recent ethnic media briefing organized by New America Media.
That system, blamed for many of the glaring funding inequities and achievement gaps that have plagued the state for decades, could soon be replaced by a drastically pared down approach first proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown in January.
His proposal, known as the Local Control Funding Formula, would put more dollars in the hands of districts with higher numbers of needier students. It would also do away with many of the restricted funding streams now in place, leaving it to local school boards and administrators to decide how these new funds are spent.
Last week, over 30 ethnic media journalists, student reporters and advocates from across the Bay Area gathered into the San Francisco offices of New America Media, looking to inform their communities about what some are calling the biggest change to school finance since passage of Prop 13 in 1978.
LCFF, formerly known as the Weighed Pupil Formula, is a fundamental reform of the current education finance system, said Jonathan Kaplan, Senior Policy Analyst with California Budget Project.
“California’s [current] education finance system is broken, it doesn’t work, even experts find it difficult to understand,” said Kaplan, who has spent over half a decade studying the K-12 funding system. By including this in his January budget proposal, the governor is looking to make the system “more transparent, more rational and more equitable,” he added.
According to Kaplan, full implementation will happen over a 7-year period. During that time, dollars now tied up in a dozen or more special-purposed categorical programs will be redirected to school districts according to socio-economic and other needs.
Federal funds, such as special education and school nutrition programs, and the state’s TIIBG (Targeted Instructional Improvement Block Grant), home-to-school transportation, and preschool funding will be kept in place.
Under the three-layered formula, each district in California will receive a base grant of about $6800 per student when fully funded. Low-income students, English learners and foster youth will also receive a supplemental grant of 35 percent on top of the base grant (equal to $2,385). Districts where these students comprise 50 percent or more of the population will receive another 35 percent as a concentration grant.
Arun Ramanathan, Executive Director of Ed Trust-West, an education civil rights organization that aims to close the achievement gap among Californians, is an avowed supporter of the formula.
“These moments only happen every decade or so,” said Ramanthan, pointing to the convergence of a number of factors that make passage of the LCFF a distinct reality. These include the absences of a budget crisis and a looming election cycle, as well as the presence of an interested governor and legislature.
That last piece, notes Ramanathan, is rare. He said by pushing for the LCFF, Brown has all but acknowledged that California’s current funding system is inequitable, something that could open the state to potential lawsuits.
Ramanathan also stressed the lasting impact that passage of LCFF could have. “[State] Superintendents appear and disappear every three years for the most part,” he explained. “What they do typically does not have a whole lot of staying power, but what the state does has a tremendous amount.”
As an example, he pointed to the creation of the state’s current accountability system under then Gov. Gray Davis in 2000. That system, part of which includes the Academic Performance Index (API), is now a firmly entrenched feature of public schools in California.
Critics of the formula say that for some districts inequities will remain.
Under its “hold harmless provision,” no district will receive less than what it gets this year in terms of state dollars, though districts with fewer disadvantaged kids will see a slower increase in their funding during the phase-in period. And even though spending per student increases in every district once the plan is fully implemented, some are estimated to receive less per pupil than districts at comparable funding levels today.
Both Ramanathan and Kaplan agree that the formula as it stands now isn’t perfect, noting they would like to see stronger accountability measures put into the language of the formula so as to ensure that districts put the added funds to their intended purposes.
EdSource Today writer and editor John Fensterwald agreed that accountability is among the biggest concerns with the proposal. But he also highlighted the fact that under Brown’s proposal, parents and community members are going to have to become more involved in the district’s decision making process.
“If you are going to do things on a district level and there aren’t going to be plans on an individual school site level, that’s going to require parents to be very active and very vigilant,” he said.
Under the LCFF, funds are calculated by district instead of at the school site level, Fensterwald explained. Which means that a lot of the spending decisions will be made by local school board members, and that is where the advocacy of parents and community groups becomes critical.
The LCFF is currently under examination in the legislature. A revised budget will be released on May 15.
“Essentially, we’re looking at a two-month period,” stressed Ramanathan, the time frame in which parents and community members can weigh in to have their voices heard by their representatives on this issue.
The next Assembly budget subcommittee hearing will be on April 19, in Sacramento. The state budget will be finalized on June 30.