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In his 2016 State of the State address, Governor Jerry Brown touted the centerpiece of his education agenda, the Local Control Funding Formula, which simplifies the way in which local school districts are funded.
Yet his key legacy program has experienced critical implementation problems and has exposed, once again, the fallacy of relying only on government-centric solutions to the state’s education problems.
The governor’s intentions in creating the Local Control Funding Formula, which was adopted by the state in 2013, were worthy. In his State of the State, he criticized the micromanagement of educators “through increasingly minute and prescriptive state and federal regulations.” With his LCFF program, he proclaimed, “California has led the country in the way it is returning control to local school districts.”
But simply shifting spending discretion from one level of government to another still means that government is in control of decision-making, with predictably bad results.
Prior to the enactment of the LCFF, funding California’s public schools was a complicated mix of general and restricted dollars, which even education experts found confusing and often nonsensical.
Under the LCFF, according to the California Department of Education, school districts receive “grade span-specific base grants” plus supplemental grants calculated on student demographic factors such as low-income status and non-English fluency. Districts, says the Department, have “greater flexibility to use these funds to improve student outcomes.”
In his State of the State, Gov. Brown boasted that California has transitioned from “overly intrusive, test-heavy state control to a true system of local accountability.”
Little or no real accountability, however, is the contrary conclusion of respected government and think-tank researchers.
The state Legislative Analyst’s Office, the Legislature’s non-partisan research arm, reviewed 50 LCFF school-district accountability plans and found that school districts rarely differentiate between new and ongoing actions, making it impossible to “determine whether districts were using the new funding generated under LCFF to pursue new actions to improve performance or to continue or expand prior activities.”
In other words, innovation or the failed status quo — who knows?
The Legislative Analyst’s Office report found that school-district accountability goals, in areas ranging from academic achievement to parental involvement to student engagement, were often “not targeted to areas in greatest need of improvement.”
In a survey of 40 LCFF accountability plans by SRI International, the University of Southern California and other organizations, few school districts “clearly and completely described the metrics they planned to use to measure progress toward their goals.”
“The problem,” said the researchers, “appeared to stem from district goals that were not always specific, measureable, or reasonably attainable.”
In the area of academic achievement, a 2015 evaluation of 25 LCFF accountability plans by the Public Policy Institute of California found, “Plans seldom provided data on current performance levels or analyzed the performance of low-income, English Learner, and foster care students.”
One of the greatest failures of LCFF is the virtual non-existence of meaningful parental input into district accountability plans. The Legislative Analyst’s Office found that districts frequently lack clear metrics and targets for parent involvement.
The Public Policy Institute of California found extremely limited parental input into accountability plans in the districts it surveyed. Yet, says the Institute’s report, LCFF accountability “depends partly on stronger local pressure generated through the engagement of parents and the public.”
But LCFF, which basically relies on government to be accountable to itself, gives parents no real tool to hold public schools accountable or to choose the best school for their children.
In the end, Jerry Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula substitutes one level of government control for another, without any real market pressure from parents. It’s no wonder, then, that California education quality isn’t getting significantly better and that the governor’s education legacy remains very much in doubt.
Lance Izumi is Koret senior fellow and senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute.