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A Funding Step Forward

  • 06-14-2013
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Week of June 10-14, 2013

Signaling an historic shift in the way California funds public schools, Gov. Jerry Brown and top legislators announced a budget deal Tuesday that will include the governor’s signature Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). LCFF, which will give significantly more money to educate high-needs students, was part of a last-minute budget compromise between the governor, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez, to be voted on today (EdSource Today, Reuters, Oakland Tribune). The agreement is being hailed as an important step toward more sensible and equitable education funding, but, like most last-minute compromises, it is a partial victory with many questions still to be resolved.

The new funding formula is meant to streamline California’s current convoluted system for funding public schools and to address the needs of the most disadvantaged students. Under the current system, each district receives a basic level of support for each student enrolled plus funds to implement more than 60 specific state and federal programs, or “categoricals.” 

LCFF will merge most state categoricals into a larger base amount, thereby providing districts with more autonomy in how their funds are distributed and relieving them of many reporting requirements. Districts will also receive an average $1,470 in supplemental funds for every English learner, low-income and foster student. Plus, those districts in which at least 55 percent of the population is high-needs will receive an extra concentration grant

The agreement will enact a broad set of principles originally laid out in a 2008 policy brief authored by State School Board president Mike Kirst, former Secretary of Education Alan Bersin, and State Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu. They called for an education funding system that was easy to understand, encouraged local decision-making, and distributed dollars based on student need. It is worth noting that Kirst and colleagues based their original plan on projections that funding for California public education would gradually increase from 2008 onwards. Of course, not only did this windfall never materialize, but the Great Recession led to deep cutbacks to state education expenditures.

Now, five years later, the current budget agreement will return districts’ base funding to their pre-recession levels. So, even as California’s system of education funding becomes more equitable, it continues to fall short of providing all students with what they need. “The bigger picture is that California remains near the bottom, nationwide, in terms of per-pupil funding,” said Assemblyman A. Maratsuchi, D-Torrance (Daily News).

There is reason to be hopeful that LCFF will initiate broader changes necessary to ensure quality education for all California students. The principle at the center of LCFF—that funding should be based on what students need to learn—provides a framework for public investment that could be supported by suburban, rural, and urban communities alike. Further, the additional funds that LCFF will bring to schools can galvanize interest and public participation, particularly in low-income communities across California. This new civic energy could play a vital role in school improvement efforts as well as statewide education funding campaigns.

But, this hope is conditional, and requires some improvements on the existing draft legislation. For LCFF to work, the process for distributing supplemental dollars needs to be more transparent and needs to foster more inclusive participation. The public should be able to see how additional funds are spent in ways that make a difference for students with greater needs. Toward this end, many equity advocates are calling for legislators to include language in the final bill that requires school districts to report how new dollars are spent at the district and school level. Further LCFF should specify a clear role that parents and community members as members of school councils can play in shaping district plans for the supplemental funding.

This week’s compromise is momentous. It marks a dramatic change in educational funding in California that lifts up the ideals of equity and local control. Now, these ideals need to be supported by empowering members of low-income communities with information and statutory assurances that their voices will be heard.

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Weekly Themes In The News

Each Friday “Themes in the News” explores one of the current week’s “breaking news” topics—selected by IDEA staff and its partners—for summary and reflection.   Hyperlinks of the news stories, which are cited, allow readers to explore the theme on their own.