Public Pressure Prompts Change to Calif.’s School Finance Plan

latino_500x279California’s State Board of Education issued a set of proposed regulations last week aimed at making school districts more accountable in the way they spend additional funding under the state’s new school finance plan, or Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF).

The changes, which more narrowly define how school districts direct more money to high need students, follow withering criticism from community advocates who decried initial regulations issued in October that would have created loopholes, allowing schools to divert funds away from their intended targets.

Veteran education reporter John Fensterwald says there’s no question the state board has “taken the criticism seriously.”

In an article for EdSource Today, he writes that the new regulations “differ significantly from what the State Board presented two months ago and reflect changes in response to sharp criticisms from advocates for high-needs students.”

One of the biggest changes in the new regulations is the inclusion of a specific formula that districts – and parents – can use to calculate how much extra money they can expect to receive from the state per year based on the number of high needs students they serve.

Under the LCFF, by the end of eight years districts will receive 20 percent more for each high need student – defined as low-income, foster youth or English Language Learner (ELL). Districts with 55 percent or more high-need students will receive an additional “concentration grant.”

Two-thirds of districts in California qualify for that concentration grant, according to researchers with the advocacy group Children Now. The new regulations still allow these districts to purpose additional LCFF dollars toward general needs, rather than targeting specific populations, when the district can demonstrate that the changes benefit high-need students as well. Critics say they’d like to see the threshold raised to 65 percent high-need so as to ensure the dollars are spent where the need is greatest.

In an interview with New America Media, Fensterwald explained the kinds of school improvement services that qualify under the new guidelines are “broadly defined,” meaning districts can use the new funds for a variety of purposes – including raising teacher salaries – as long as they can show a net benefit for high-need students.

Perhaps, the most significant change, Fensterwald says, is that schools will be held to tougher accountability standards: They’ll need to show that funds were used in a way that benefited high-need students and that they engaged a variety of stakeholders, including parents, in funding decisions.

“The formula lets [districts] go back and determine on a yearly basis how much money they are going to get,” he said, adding they will then need to “demonstrate how [they] provided a proportional amount of additional or improved services” to high need students utilizing the additional monies.

That documentation is part of what districts are required to provide under their Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP), which sets out spending priorities alongside improvement goals. They will also need to show how they engaged the community in making spending decisions, a process that involves the creation of district advisory committees made up of community members, parents and teachers. These committees will be expected to advise districts, while superintendents will be obliged to respond in writing.

Fensterwald says one of the first questions to ask will be “when and how these committees were formed, whether they are truly reflective of high need student populations … and if in-language materials are made available.”

Schools and districts across the state typically struggle to engage parents of high-need students, often for reasons involving poverty and language barriers.

Fensterwald adds that under the new regulations, counties have the authority to reject district’s LCAPs if they fail to show effective community engagement. But despite these and other accountability measures, he says he expects “tremendous variation” among districts in the engagement process.

“If parents have not heard about this, or if school site councils are not engaged by the district, then they need to ask why,” he says, adding parents need to look at the eight priority areas designated under the LCAP. These areas include things like school climate, expulsion rates, the social and emotional needs of students, and community engagement.

“This is the start of a very different conversation,” Fensterwald says.

The board will vote on the new LCFF regulations on Jan. 16.

For more information about the LCFF, read EdSource Today’s 10 FAQ’s.

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