Civil rights groups, schools face off over LCFF flexibility question

Civil rights groups, schools face off over LCFF flexibility question

In selling the landmark restructuring of school finance to the public and skeptical educators, Gov. Jerry Brown emphasized two seemingly compatible themes.

One, that more money needed to go to the neediest students as a matter of civil justice. And two, that local school boards – not Sacramento – should have more authority over the lion’s share of the spending decisions.

But in recent weeks, a glaring inconsistency has emerged as Brown’s state board of education scrambles to meet a looming deadline to provide schools regulatory guidance on how to use money provided under the new Local Control Funding Formula.

Advocates for low-income students, English learners and foster youth are lobbying the administration to emphasize a key phrase in the LCFF’s enabling legislation that calls for the targeted money to be used to “increase or improve” services for the educationally disadvantaged.

Meanwhile, school officials are asking that the new regulations maintain the promised flexibility, arguing local officials are best equipped to decide how to “increase or improve” services to the targeted students.

“If you just continue doing what you’ve always been doing, is that an increase or an improvement in services – no,” said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, executive director of Californians Together, a coalition of 25 parent, professional and civil rights organizations representing the state’s English learners, low-income and immigrant community.

“The legislative language says that one of the state priorities is to increase or improve services,” she said. “So what the state board needs to be looking at is what were districts doing before they received LCFF funds– what were the core programs – and how are they going to define increased or improved services.”

School representatives have been measured in their rebuttal, arguing that the two objectives are not necessarily in conflict – but the principle of local control is good for everyone.

In a letter to the state board last week, Jeff Vaca, deputy executive director of the California Association of School Business Officers, argued that the “success of the implementation process at the local level will rest on the ability of each LEA to effectively engage and listen to their local communities.”

The flexibility question is just one of a myriad of decisions that the California State Board of Education will need to make in the coming weeks – mandated by legislation to develop and approve spending regulations for the LCFF money by the end of January, 2014.

As part of the program, districts are also mandated by law to develop and adopt spending plans that among other things, articulate how the targeted state money is being used to improve student achievement among the disadvantaged population.

The state board is also required by the end of March, 2014 to provide templates directing how schools should create those accountability plans.

Because of the calendar, the state board is expected to have drafts of both documents available for public review at its next meeting, Nov. 6-7, so that they will be in position to act by the January meeting date.

Meanwhile, the state board has almost another year – until Oct. 1, 2015 – to develop and approve an evaluation rubric that would be used by the state and county offices to assess district accountability plans.

Thus, the conversations going on now are critical – including the last of a series of closed door meetings with selected stakeholders scheduled to take place in Sacramento today even though the debate has been going on for weeks.

A group of 28 civil rights organizations – including the American Civil Liberties Union of California, the Mexican American Legal Defense Education Fund and Public Advocates – sent a letter in July to county offices, district superintendents and charter school operators bluntly making their case.

“The LCFF imperative is clear: students with greater needs deserve and require additional support,” the July 24 letter said. “While the State Board of Education is charged with working out many of the regulatory details with an eye to 2014-15, services for English Learners, low-income and foster youth will have to be increased or improved in proportion to the increase in funds generated by these students through the LCFF.”

In late August, many of the same organizations sent a similar letter to state schools chief Tom Torlakson and Mike Kirst, president of the state board.

“Any history of the policy discussions around the LCFF must recognize that the new LEA flexibility is not unbounded but is, rather, to be fit within the equity principles identified here and in Governor Brown’s charge to cease treating children in unequal situations as equals,” the civil rights group said, noting the specific language of press releases from the governor in April and June that said the LCFF would “strategically direct[s] additional money above base funding to children with the greatest need – low-income students, English learners and foster youth.”

Another letter from Californians Together on Oct. 3 to schools statewide reminded administrators that regardless of programs that the LCFF might help provide, schools are already obligated to comply with a number of state and federal mandates to ensure educational services and opportunity to English learners. Among them: the Equal Opportunities Act, Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the state’s Economic Impact Aid program.

“There is much flexibility available with the LCFF,” the Oct. 3 letter said. “But the state and federal laws and regulations are not part of the flexibility and still must be complied with when allocating funds and adopting and evaluating programs.”

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