Some school districts move now to support disadvantaged

Some school districts move now to support disadvantaged

(Calif.) As the Brown administration contemplates further regulation of the new funding system supporting educationally disadvantaged students, some school superintendents say they are already engaged with parents and community leaders over plans to better serve the targeted populations.

“We have three schools that have high poverty, high numbers of English learners, high minority group isolation, and high numbers of parents without a high school education. These schools are going to be receiving more funding than the other elementary schools because they have greater needs,” explained Patrick Sweeney, Superintendent of Napa Valley Unified.
“We’ve been very open about this,” he said. “We’ve begun to work on this with our teachers’ association and there is conceptual agreement. One thing these three schools are going to get sooner than the other sixteen elementary schools is K-3 class size reduction.”

A major feature of California’s landmark restructuring of school funding – the Local Control Funding Formula – gives local school officials authority over the lion’s share of the state’s $42 billion education budget.

But Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders also insisted that the new program direct a bigger share of that money to those students that need the most help – English learners, low-income and foster youth.

The two goals have come into sharp conflict in recent weeks as advocates for the disadvantaged press the California State Board of Education to enact regulations that clearly mandate the additional money must be used to enhance existing services.

Statewide school organizations as well as many local school officials are generally opposed to any new requirements that would diminish flexibility over the LCFF program. But there is strong support for imposing regulatory mandates – both from civil rights groups and among some members of the Legislature.

So far, the Brown administration has sided with the schools, having proposed a set of regulations that would implement the LCFF legislation allowing local officials to define how they would meet a mandate to provide additional services.

Districts would still be required to engage with parents and other stakeholders in developing a plan for serving the targeted students, and to produce a formal document, the Local Control Accountability Plan, that would include performance goals.

Earlier this month, the state board – whose members are appointed by the governor – sat through an epic five hour hearing on the question, where both sides were well represented.

John Affeldt, managing attorney at Public Advocates – a San Francisco-based non-profit that represents low-income communities – said that proposed regulations pending before the state board give too much freedom to local school boards and superintendents, potentially leaving the status quo unchallenged.

“If there are no rules, people will do all sorts of things – some well-targeted, some slightly askew, some wholly missing the mark," he said.

But like Napa, school officials in Vallejo have also reached out to their community over the new spending program – an effort that actually dates back more than two years.

“The things that we are being asked to do in putting together the local control accountability plan were things that were already in motion here,” said Dr. Ramona Bishop, superintendent at Vallejo City Unified.

“Since the new initiative came forward, what we’ve been doing is educating our community about the LCFF and about the accountability plan as far as we know,” she said. “That’s happening with school groups, that’s happening with all our regular district advisory bodies like the English learner advisory committee, our PTA and all those parent groups that regularly convene.”

She said in addition, the district is surveying the entire community about interests and needs, which will serve as a guide when the time comes for stakeholders to begin developing the LCAP, the first deadline for which has been set for July, 2014.

Bishop said they’ve included an incentive to parents to complete the survey, by offering a special grant to schools that achieve a benchmark of 75 percent.

Both Sweeney and Bishop said they oppose adding a new layer of accountability into the LCFF, arguing that the best decisions are going to be made by the community and the parents.

“Many of us in the education community – teachers, administrators and school board members – were very excited a year ago when the governor talk about the Local Control Funding Formula,” said Sweeney. “I, personally, was very hopeful that finally we were going to fund students of poverty than those from middle or upper income families.

“And to see this become regulated to the point where it might be hard to be creative – that’s a little disturbing,” he said.

Wes Smith, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators, said school managers and civil rights groups have the same goal – to promote the performance of disadvantaged students. But based on the long history of both federal and state funding programs, confining formulas don’t work.

“Putting restrictions on the dollars or mandates on how we spend the money doesn’t narrow the achievement gap,” he said. “Look at Title I and the criticism it gets. We’ve had categoricals for years in California and we haven’t seen the narrowing we’d all like to see.”

Bishop said she understands how advocates for disadvantaged students might not trust the system given the inability of schools to close the achievement gap. But she said “it would be a mistake to impose any more restrictions on how that money is used.”

She would support a “nuanced” approach, where districts would continue to have flexibility over the use of the LCFF money as long as they met a majority of performance measures.

Affeldt, who along with the ACLU and Californians Together represent a politically powerful opposition group, said districts that are putting plans into place to improve services to the target populations shouldn’t be wary of additional requirements.

That said, however, Affledt explained that the  group’s goal isn’t to create a new layer of red tape and bureaucracy.

“We are arguing for proportionality – not strict categorical, programmatic accounting,” he explained. “My point is that there is a lot of space between a rigid categorical expenditure model and a total flexibility model.”

Sweeney noted California's status as one of the lowest per pupil funders of schools in the nation. "California is still funded 46th in the nation, which is unacceptable," he said. "All California students wealthy, middle,and poor deserve better funding. If our state is to remain one of the largest economies in the world, we need to build for the future by supporting public education today." more