Criticism of new school funding law misses the mark

150 150 Matthew Grant Anson

If LCFF goes according to plan, more students will reach the graduation finish line. 

If you’ve kept up with our coverage of the Local Control Funding Formula, you know by now that it’s a fundamental shift in the way California’s schools will be funded. If you’re new to the topic, the short version of the law is that school districts will have far more control over how they spend the money they receive from the state, allowing them to target their own needs, all while giving more money to districts with a high number of low income students, foster kids, and English learners.  

Like all things that sound hunky dory, the law has drawn increasing caution, concern, and criticism, highlighted last week by a piece by EdSource’s Louis Freedberg on the potential weaknesses in the new school funding law. Freedberg’s piece voices many concerns, and many of the ones related to accountability and transparency are well-founded.

However, some parts of his argument lack clarity in a manner that merits a response:

There is a danger that many school districts will spend funds in a scattershot fashion, rather than targeting the funds on programs and services that are likely to produce the greatest gains in student achievement. The law gives little guidance as to how funds should be spent. In fact, that is one of its main purposes:  to give school districts unprecedented control over how to spend state education funds.

That there is “very little guidance” is not entirely true. For starters, we don’t know what guidance the law will and will not give districts as to how funds should be spent because those regulations don’t come out until November. In our interview a week ago with the California School Board Association’s Teri Burns, she stressed the fact that not only are these regulations on the way, but there’s fear that there will actually be too much guidance. Burns described the worst case scenario for when the regulations come out next month as a situation where “stuff gets real prescriptive, like you must spend these dollars very specifically on these children and nothing else…that kind of stuff gets us right back to where we were before LCFF.”

The fear shouldn’t be that the state board of education will allow for unfettered use of funds. The possibility that the board will actually place too many restrictions on how the money should be spent is as big a risk, if not a bigger one. Regardless, we’re not going to know until November.

Freedberg goes on to state that more money doesn’t mean less problems:

However, a preponderance of research – in California and elsewhere – shows there is no direct relationship between how much money a district spends and students’ academic outcomes.”

The 5-year-old study Freedberg links to isn’t about how there is allegedly no direct relationship between how much money a district spends and students’ achievement. Rather, the study explicitly says that the relationship between dollars and achievement in California is uncertain because of the lack of data, and this relationship “cannot be used to gauge the potential effect of resources on student outcomes.”

In fact, the portion of the study that recommends ways dollars can be spent more effectively is essentially the definition of LCFF: “relaxation of state regulations and restrictions on categorical funds to allow greater local flexibility for resource allocation, including the flexibility to make more effective use of instructional time and possible expansion of that time, especially in schools with high concentrations of disadvantaged students.” 

Freedberg fears that the intricacies of the law will dissuade community members from getting involved in the conversation:

The complexity of the new law is especially relevant, as one of its most innovative provisions is that it requires school districts to get input from community-level participants in their schools…If the law is too complex for ordinary Californians to understand, that could play a major role in discouraging all but education experts to be directly involved in the process.

Freedberg says the complexity is relevant, but is it really? Community members don’t need to know the absolute intricacies of the law to understand the general theme of giving districts more freedom with their funds and giving districts with kids that need extra help the money to provide it. In much the same way the Affordable Care Act’s intricacies have done little to stem the outpouring of opinion on that law, it’s hard to believe that parents and other members of the community will allow themselves to be intimidated out of ensuring the best education opportunities for their own children.

While Freedberg’s piece does miss the mark at certain points, it’s also an invaluable element of what has to happen for LCFF to be a success. These conversations are critical to making sure the law is implemented effectively and logically, and that the inevitably necessary changes won’t be delayed. As Freedberg says, “Now is the time for Californians to come forward and encourage the board — and if necessary the Legislature — to make the necessary fixes or adjustments, not years from now when it may be too late to make midcourse corrections.” These are the conversations that will make that happen.  


Matthew Grant Anson

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