What’s Fair in Funding?

The California State Capitol. (Photo by Author)

The California State Capitol. (Photo by Author)

California Governor Jerry Brown is sticking to his bold “Local Control Funding Formula” (LCFF).  It’s been interesting to see that push back is coming primarily from Democratic legislators, primarily based on the idea that it would be more “fair” if the state increased the base grant for all students, rather than provide so much supplemental funding, weighted at 35%, to low income kids or English-language learners.  This seems to ignore the fact that we’ve always targeted at least some funds to helping disadvantaged kids.  For example, Maggie Weston at PPIC did an analysis that showed that on average, the state has been provided an “implicit” weight of 20% for poor students, who have very real needs that schools need to address.  But this implicit weight comes through “categorical” programs, which almost everyone agrees are overly complex, often irrational, and always restrictive.  Given the complexity, this average also obscures big differences between districts, even if they have the same number of disadvantaged kids.  Governor Brown’s proposal moves us away from this complexity.  Some of the suburban districts also think that the “20% cut” they took following 2007-08 should be restored first.  However, this cut was applied across the board, and assumed that districts started at an equitable place.  They did not.  The previous “revenue limits”, which are like the new base grant, were based on historical spending at districts.  Thus, the 20% cut hurt some districts more than others.  Governor Brown is absolutely right to say that as state funding for education grows (and it is about the only state program that is growing this year), that money should be targeted based on needs.

LCFF does some great things that will truly empower local educators, by permanently getting rid of about 40 categorical programs, and their various restrictions which limit all districts. I wrote about this in March for ThinkED:

Perhaps Superintendent Michael Hanson of the Fresno Unified School District explained it best when he testified last Thursday before a state senate committee examining Governor Brown’s K-12 education budget proposal. He spoke about a state-funded tutoring program related the California High School Exit Exam, which most students must pass to obtain a high school diploma. Before 2008, school districts could only use these funds on students who had failed their initial attempt at the exam. With funding flexibility, Fresno Unified can now use these funds to provide tutoring to students who need the help before they even take the exam, which Superintendent Hanson said made much more sense for Fresno’s students in enabling them to graduate from high school. His comments touched upon a key principle that StudentsFirst advocates: we should focus on results, rather than prescribing how school districts achieve them through restricted funding streams and detailed compliance requirements.

Regardless of what happens, LCFF is just a start.  If we distribute funds in a more transparent and rational way, we will also be able to start to see if this funding is being used in the most efficient and effective way. Then, the state can make adjustments based on this real data to really distribute funds in the fairest way possible.  That is perhaps the most exciting promise of LCFF. (Although it will require more data collection than the Governor probably likes.) With the June 15 budget deadline rapidly approaching, it will be interesting to see how it all turns out!

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