Thomas Timar is director of the UC Davis Center for Applied Policy in Education and California Institute for School Improvement.

Viewpoints: Collaboration can get us beyond tired debate over school funding

Published: Tuesday, May. 28, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 9A
Last Modified: Tuesday, May. 28, 2013 - 8:04 am

Over the past 30 years, the state's role in funding public schools in California has been a topic of ongoing debate among policymakers and practitioners. Who should decide how state and local revenue for education is spent – the state or local communities?

After passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, control over school funding shifted inexorably toward the state. Not only did the state decide how much funding schools would receive per pupil, it also told districts with increasing specificity how those funds had to be spent. Between 1980 and 2000, state restricted ("categorical") funding increased from about 14 percent per pupil revenue to about 34 percent. The number of state categorical programs over those 20 years increased from 14 to more than 60.

Advocates for categorical funding argue that without it, and its mandates, districts won't provide important educational services, especially services for economically disadvantaged students and students with special needs. They also fear that in the absence of state restrictions on spending, school funds will end up on the bargaining table and will pay for teachers' salary increases rather than enhanced instructional services.

Proponents of unrestricted, block grant funding – Gov. Jerry Brown, for instance – argue that decisions about how districts spend their education dollars should be made at the local level. They argue that schools are, in fact, held accountable for student outcomes. They point out that, while the state has the authority and legal obligation to set program standards, they insist it should be left to local school officials to determine how those standards are to be met.

While there are legitimate claims on both sides of this argument, neither side has made much headway in convincing the other of its merits. Given the governor's proposal for a new school finance system based on a pupil-weighted formula and his proposal to spend $1 billion on the implementation of Common Core, this might be an opportune time to move beyond the restricted-unrestricted dilemma to other, more promising approaches to funding.

One such model is the Board of Cooperative Education Services, which was established in 1948 by the New York state Legislature to provide shared educational programs and services to school districts within the state.

Board of Cooperative Education Services are regional service organizations that incorporate all but nine of the state's 721 school districts. The board enables school districts to develop shared programs that serve children from all districts. By focusing on collaboration and cost containment, it is a more efficient way of providing needed expertise and technical assistance to school districts.

California already has a network or regional service centers – county offices of education that are organized into 11 regions – that could be adapted to the Board of Cooperative Education Services model. Presently, California is in the middle of implementing new curriculum standards – the Common Core Standards – for K-12 education. It is a daunting challenge that is made even more difficult by the state's size and diversity.

The California Department of Education, which is responsible for overseeing statewide implementation, simply lacks the reach and resources to do it on its own. But, it can leverage its own resources and expertise through regional networks that work collaboratively to implement Common Core.

Evidence from research suggests that creating collaborative networks of counties, districts, schools, teachers and administrators is more effective, efficient, and predictable in producing high-quality instructional systems than California's traditional approach to school improvement – creating categorical programs that are implemented differently by each of the state's nearly 1,000 districts.

Collaborative networks already exist in California. The California Office to Reform Education, or CORE, comprises 10 large California school districts working cooperatively to build local capacity for school improvement. The Collaborative for System Transformation, headed by UC Davis' Center for Applied Policy in Education, teams with Michael Fullan who, according to EdSource and Education Week, is credited with transforming the Canadian province of Ontario into one of the world's most effective school systems.

Engaging educators and communities in local collaborative efforts to strengthen their systems of education promises to be more efficient and effective than the "one size fits all" approach that has been the mainstay of school funding for the past 30 years.

The funding model proposed here is much more than just a different way of funding schools, it is a way of engaging educators professionally and building an instructional core that is sustainable. More importantly, it would change a 30-year practice of top-down intervention strategies to one of grass-roots collaboration, professionalized and with teachers working with administrators and the communities their schools serve in the interest of high-quality education.

Thomas Timar is director of the UC Davis Center for Applied Policy in Education and California Institute for School Improvement.

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