Joe Mathews: State pulls a fast one on local control of public schools

State Board of Education President Michael Kirst played a major role in the new Local Control Funding Formula for California schools.
State Board of Education President Michael Kirst played a major role in the new Local Control Funding Formula for California schools. Sacramento Bee file

Don’t tell my kids I said this, but it really is OK for Californians to skip homework assignments – if they come from Sacramento.

If you’ve lived in California for the past two years, you’ve probably been invited by your local school district – by letter, email or advertisement – to participate in developing a plan for your local schools to spend state money.

Created by 2013 legislation, these Local Control and Accountability Plans were touted as local democracy, a way for communities to seize control of their educational destinies. These plans are to be put together by school districts in consultation with parents and the public. And they are part of a new Local Control Funding Formula that provides more spending flexibility for school districts, particularly as they serve low-income students, English learners and those in foster care.

My strong advice: Don’t waste your time on these plans.

Like other policies pitched as empowering local communities, it has proven to be just one more way for Sacramento to exert control over us. These plans are already turning into burdensome documents, reminding us that our state government reserves almost all the most important decisions for itself.

Instead of allowing communities to devise the plans according to their own priorities, the state mandated its own template. That template requires plans to address eight priority areas, and lists the performance indicators that districts must use and even the questions to be addressed.

It’s no surprise that the resulting plans are massive, confusing documents. The goals are often vague or boilerplate, and they aren’t ranked in importance. The most intriguing ideas often involve technology or curriculum choices, which are not, according to state law, supposed to be part of the plans.

Expert evaluations of these plans have been critical. A Public Policy Institute of California report, examining plans in 25 districts, found that many districts struggled to get parents and the public to participate and lacked the necessary knowledge about strategic planning and data-based decision-making to create effective plans.

The nonprofit EdSource reported that the plans are getting longer; in the 30 largest districts, the average was 145 pages.

“The length of the documents may also make them hard for parents and other community stakeholders to read and understand, undercutting one of their principal goals, which is for districts to be transparent about their goals and to make districts accountable for meeting them,” said EdSource.

Ideas being offered to fix these plans – giving the state more ability to provide technical assistance to local districts, or empowering a different level of bureaucracy (county offices of education) to work on the plans – miss the point.

The plans aren’t truly local; they are complicated attempts to disguise the ugly reality of state centralization of education.

What local communities need is decentralization – the ability to tax themselves and fund schools as they see fit, and to pursue the curricula they want. But that would require overturning court decisions on school equalization treasured by liberals, undoing taxation limits protected by conservatives and challenging school reformers who back standardized curricula.

Memo to Sacramento: If you’re not going to give us real local control, at least stop dressing up new state mandates as local empowerment.

Memo to local schools: Please don’t waste time that would be better spent on educating children. If the state keeps sending us lousy homework like the local plans, let’s feed it to the dogs.

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.