Dan Walters

Opinion: California’s plan to fund schools gets a test

For years, education and political circles have buzzed about the “achievement gap” in California’s education system – the wide and deep academic chasm separating Latino and black children, especially those from poor families – from white and Asian-American students.

It’s a major segment of the larger debate over California’s overall achievement failings vis-à-vis other states, as revealed in academic testing, and whether they should be approached by raising a mediocre level of school spending or by overhauling how the system is organized.

Upon returning to the governorship in 2011 after a 28-year absence, Jerry Brown stepped into the debate with a strategy advocated by Michael Kirst, a retired Stanford University professor and president of the state Board of Education.

As employed in some other states, it was called a “weighted formula,” but Brown adopted the rather awkward title of “Local Control Funding Formula.”

Approved by the Legislature, LCFF raises overall school spending, removes restrictions on “categorical aids” for specific programs, and provides extra funds to school districts with large numbers of poor and/or “English learner” students.

Brown also advocated “subsidiarity,” giving districts wide latitude on how the new money is spent, albeit with “Local Control Accountability Plans” that, in theory, ensure it is spent effectively.

It’s much too soon to determine whether the formula will have its intended effect.

Some school reform groups are leery that loose guidelines will result in the extra money being diverted into salary increases, rather than focused programs to help those who need help.

However, it’s not too soon to examine how implementation is proceeding and a university-level research team has done just that, citing the new approach as “the most comprehensive transformation of California’s school funding system in 40 years.”

The team, assembled by SRI International (Stanford Research Institute), studied implementation in 10 districts by reviewing data and interviewing local educators.

It found both great enthusiasm and great confusion, especially on how they should account for the extra dollars and write local accountability plans.

The Public Policy Institute of California has criticized the local accountability aspect of the new scheme, saying its provisions “fail to create a coherent set of objectives (and) may create more confusion than clarity.”

The SRI study confirms that shortcoming, which raises a serious question of how the overall success or failure of the formula will be judged. A key factor is the sparring already underway among politicians and educators over the design of a new academic testing regime.

Only objective testing will tell us whether, indeed, LCFF closes the achievement gap or is just another of many school improvement theories that fail to deliver.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/dan-walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.