CA’s schools chief favors ‘strong accountability’ on new school funding

CA’s schools chief favors ‘strong accountability’ on new school funding

(Calif.) As Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration continues to mull adding restrictions on how schools spend billions in new money, the state’s top educator, Superintendent Tom Torlakson,  said Tuesday the additional funding needs to increase services – not just maintain the status quo.

Torlakson’s comments are significant – because of his status as state schools chief but also because his positions are often aligned with the California Teachers Association.

“The new money should be going to those low-income and English learner students that have made the schools eligible for those extra dollars,” Torlakson said in an interview.

“The state board is tackling this, West Ed is coming up with new information and options as the staff,” he explained. “We are monitoring the effort, watching it very carefully. We’re hoping there will be the right balance between some local control but strong accountability for the dollars going to the benefit of the students who enabled those schools to get the extra dollars.”

Asked directly if the program should include a mandate that the new money supplement – not supplant – existing spending he said yes. “I support the money going to programs without supplanting existing dollars going to similar programs.”

Although an ex-officio member of the California State Board of Education, Torlakson may play a pivotal role in sorting out the thorny issue.

Brown and legislative leaders agreed last summer to a landmark restructuring of school finance in the creation of the Local Control Funding Formula. But two themes, seemingly unconnected, have since come into conflict: One, that local school officials should have as much authority as possible over how education money gets spent; and two, that most of the state money should be used to support those that need it the most – low income students, English learners and foster youth.

The enabling legislation left key details of how the program should work to be decided by the state board. The board is required to develop and approve spending regulations for the LCFF money by the end of January, 2014.

Draft regulations, considered by the state board in November, have been criticized as giving schools too much flexibility and have raised concerns among advocates for the disadvantaged that no real change will come about as a result of the new money.

Many have since called for a specific mandate to be built into the regulations similar to what federal programs require – the so-called ‘supplement-not-supplant’ rule.

Proposed revisions to the regulations released earlier this month include language that would require districts to demonstrate the new money is going to increase or improve services to low-income students, English learners and foster youth.

But exactly how the terms “increased or improved” services would be defined remains uncertain.

Given Brown’s apparent commitment to the “principle of subsidiarity” – that is, giving local agencies authority to make their own spending decisions – it would have seemed unlikely only a few weeks ago that such a restriction as ‘supplement-not-supplant’ would be considered.

But 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 – have been active in lobbying the administration on the question. And just before the Thanksgiving holiday, leaders of both the state Senate and the Assembly added this voice to those critical of the draft regulations.

“We are concerned that the draft regulations considered at your most recent board meeting are inconsistent with the intent and letter of the law enacted in June,” read a letter to state board president Mike Kirst from, among others, Senate leader Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez.