Does California’s landmark school funding formula need 10th year makeover?


Two legal advocacy groups that have bird-dogged districts’ spending for a decade under the state’s education funding formula are calling for significant changes they say are vital for students the law is intended to serve. They join Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is also urging a big expansion of the Local Control Funding Formula on its 10th anniversary, including more funding for high-poverty schools. In pursuit of more equitable and transparent spending, both would broaden districts’ reporting requirements.

Public Advocates and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California laid out their case for amending the funding formula in a 64-page report released earlier last month. It focuses on strengthening the three-year plan of action that all districts write detailing goals for student improvement and the actions and spending they’ll take to accomplish them. That document is the Local Control and Accountability Plan, the LCAP, which already runs dozens to hundreds of pages in some districts. 

Newsom would rather channel money to high-needs students through schools instead of the districts.

Public Advocates and the ACLU cite other long-standing problems that should be addressed, including:

  • Many school districts go through the motion of engaging parents and students in writing their LCAPs but don’t take their suggestions seriously.
  • Many districts bunch big spending items together, making it impossible to track specific commitments.
  • Districts provide a minimum time between presenting their LCAPs and voting on them, cutting debate short.
  • Many districts don’t include enough money in the LCAPs to show how they are meeting their full obligations under state law.

“Overall, we’re still supportive of LCFF and the promise it holds for increasing equitable outcomes in our state,” said John Affeldt, managing attorney for Public Advocates, “but that hinges on the LCAP working. We need to make sure it functions as intended.”

Among their recommendations to fix it, Public Advocates and the ACLU call for:

  • Strengthening requirements for districts to consider the perspectives of parents, students and the community when writing the LCAP. The state should require more time for the public to review the draft LCAP and for school boards to consider the public’s suggestions; districts should spend more money to expand their outreach to the public.
  • Monitoring county offices of education, which are responsible for certifying districts’ LCAPs, to ensure they are doing their jobs. Recognizing that this work can be time-consuming, the report also calls for more funding to provide county offices with additional staff.
  • Requiring that the LCAP include not only funding provided through the funding formula but also billions of dollars from all federal and state revenue sources that districts use to address the funding law’s broadly defined priorities for student success. These would include, for example, community schools’ efforts for counseling, tutoring and mental health.

About 80% of TK-12 funding from the state’s general fund is funneled through the Local Control Funding Formula. On top of base funding, an additional 20% is distributed according to the number of a district’s or charter school’s “high-needs” students, which the law defines as students from low-income families, English learners and foster youths.

As its name implies, the funding formula cedes more control over spending decisions to local school boards. But in return, the law obligated districts to engage parents on how money should be spent to meet eight priorities for improvement. Besides student achievement, they include student engagement, family involvement, school climate and basic school conditions, which includes equitable distribution of well-qualified teachers.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown, the funding formula’s champion, quashed any effort to amend it as long as he was governor, saying it should be given time to work. At the same time, the State Board of Education, charged with rolling out the law, has regularly tweaked the LCAP’s requirements and template. It has added the requirement that districts create an overview for parents and expenditure tables to track spending. A change that went into effect this year requires districts to permanently commit unspent funding for high-needs students, not funnel it to the general fund, as many districts had been doing. Public Advocates and the ACLU maintain these actions don’t go far enough to fix fundamental flaws. 

Newsom adds focus on schools

Now in his second term, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced ambitious changes as part of his 2023-24 budget.

The funding formula currently focuses on improving the performance of low-achieving students at the district level. Responding to criticism that districts have not paid enough attention and money to schools that high-needs students attend, Newsom proposes an additional $300 million in permanent funding, which he calls an “equity multiplier.” It would go to about 800 of the highest-poverty schools. He would broaden the LCAP to require improvement plans for not only equity multiplier schools but all schools where student groups score very low on state performance metrics. These groups include students with disabilities, English learners and racial and ethnic groups.

Affleldt said Public Advocates supports Newsom’s equity multiplier approach, but believes it will come up short unless the state addresses weaknesses in monitoring, transparency and accountability.

Expanding the LCAP to include revenue sources outside of the funding formula will be contentious.

In the last several years, Newsom has committed more than $15 billion to specific purposes that are exempt from LCAP reporting: community schools, before -and after-school extended learning, and broadly defined learning recovery from Covid. Newsom’s advisers have argued that most of the funding is targeted to low-income students, consistent with the intent of the funding formula, and is mostly one-time funding, capturing a post-Covid surge in state revenue.

But the trend is “increasingly problematic,” the report argues, since the programs have different reporting periods or minimum accountability requirements, in the case of federal Covid funding, making it hard for the public to know how huge amounts of money will be spent. 

“If the goal of comprehensive strategic planning is to ‘evaluate the hard choices [districts] must make about the use of limited resources,’ all actions and expenditures that contribute towards state priority goals should be included,” the report said, citing the state’s instructions for the LCAP. If forced to scour multiple documents to see how their district is dealing with chronic absenteeism or budgeting for mental health, for example, frustrated parents will give up on the LCAP, the report said.

LCAP overload

Critics say the additional reporting requirements could overload an already complex and often overwhelming document — especially for thousands of small districts where often a single administrator may be responsible for writing the LCAP and the 20 plans that districts must complete for new state and federal programs.

“More is not always better,” said Corey Greenlaw, associate director for LCAP and compliance for the Fresno County Office of Education. “The LCAP risks becoming an unwieldy document, and that’s a concern for us. We want to get it as efficient and lean as we can, so it’s more useful and usable to parents.”

“There’s no requirement that money from other sources be included in the LCAP,” he said. “That’s an option that districts have for clarity.”

Matt Navo, executive director of the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, a state agency that the Local Control Funding Formula established to help school districts improve, said, “It’s always a good thing when you can create a system that allows people to easily see how dollars that are equipping students may be better used.”  

But, he added, “as a tool for continuous improvement, the LCAP was never designed to be the be-all, end-all for every reporting question that people might have.”

Newsom’s equity multiplier proposal also could greatly increase the length of many districts’ LCAPs by requiring adding dozens of school plans for student groups in individual schools. As a way to streamline the LCAP, the nonpartisan Legislative Advocate’s Office suggests creating an interactive online portal where LCAP expenditure data would be moved; users could choose the level of financial detail they want to explore. 

The Public Advocates/ACLU report urges something similar — investing in “an innovative, web-based comprehensive planning platform” that would consolidate LCAP and other budgetary reporting. It should enable advocates and parents to compare districts’ LCAP spending priorities — something they can’t do now.

It’s unclear whether a proposed electronic version is realistic — and whether it could be both less complicated and more transparent. Greenlaw said he anticipates it would be complex and difficult to create. Navo suggested piloting an electronic template within one county and seeing if it produces the desired results.  

Parent engagement is critical

Effective parent and community engagement and shared decision-making are, as the report notes, “cornerstones” of local control.” Most districts adhere to most of the funding law’s minimum requirements for engagement, but not its spirit. And yet researchers found that only one-quarter of the 20 districts provided responses to suggestions of parent committees, as the law requires; most LCAPs don’t say which were adopted and which were ignored.

The Legislature has appropriated $100 million for a statewide LCAP engagement initiative, led by the San Bernardino County Office of Education. Over three years, 44 districts have participated; Public Advocates and the ACLU urge more districts to get involved.

The report makes numerous recommendations. To give parents more time to give feedback and the school board more time to consider it, the funding law should be amended to require at least a week or two between when an LCAP is presented at a public hearing and its adoption by the board.

It says districts should invest in getting the community involved by hiring staff to engage students and families, hiring community-based organizations to support engagement and providing stipends for parents and students to develop their leadership skills to co-lead engagement events.

It should empower county offices of education to monitor and even reject LCAPs when districts fail to follow legal requirements, such as publicly posting LCAP documents, holding public hearings and regular meetings with parent LCAP committees.

The report highlighted “bright spots” of engagement, such as San Diego Unified’s translation of LCAP presentations into seven languages, Sacramento City Unified’s series of community listening sessions on how to support high-needs students, and Los Angeles Unified’s agreement to expand its Black Student Achievement Plan based on students’ suggestions.

But Alma Cervantes can testify that it can take years to build effective parent engagement by breaking down school districts’ resistance and building the confidence of low-income parents to view themselves as partners “in developing strategies that get to the root causes of inequities for students.”

Cervantes is the regional education equity and justice director of the nonprofit Building Healthy Communities-Monterey County, which has focused its work in Salinas and small school districts in Soledad and Alisal, where parents now elect school representatives to the District Advisory Committee and conduct parent training.

“Districts don’t have the bandwidth and capacity to really understand community engagement because it creates more work to step out of your comfort zone and create a culture of belonging,” she said.

Every school should be required to have a year-round work plan for parent engagement, with goals, deliverables and timeframes, she said. Otherwise, parents will feel overlooked by a district’s rush every June to pass an LCAP, she said.

How widespread are problems?

Researchers examined 72 LCAPs for 2022-23, including all districts in Monterey and San Bernardino counties. Researchers intensely focused on 20 districts; they included the state’s four largest districts — Los Angeles, San Diego, Fresno and Long Beach, as well as Oakland and two small districts: Del Norte Unified in Del Norte County and Loleta Union Elementary School Distinct in Humboldt County.

 Among the findings:

  • Nearly a quarter of the districts budgeted less funding for services for high-needs students than the amount of funding they received for those students.
  • Although districts are required to include base funding when explaining how they are meeting the eight state priorities, 51 districts (71%) included less than half of their budget in the LCAP.
  • Districts frequently bundled large amounts of spending on multiple programs, making it hard to know how money would be spent. As an example, Anaheim Union High School District said it would spend $15.9 million on staff “to support the mental, physical, behavioral and emotional health of vulnerable students to reduce student suspensions, improve student learning, and promote well-being,” according to the report.

Public Advocates has filed LCAP complaints over the years with several districts for underspending for high-needs students. In the report, Public Advocates and ACLU said that county offices of education routinely fall short of their duties by approving LCAPs that do not adhere to the LCAP template or the expenditure regulations; one-third of the districts in the report had incomplete LCAPs after their county review, it said.

The California County Superintendents, which represents the state’s county offices, disputes that conclusion. The reports’ findings are based on a sampling of districts and county offices, not the majority, and shouldn’t be generalized, said Lindsay Tornatore, director of systems improvement and  student success for the California County Superintendents. “You can’t say that these findings are statistically sound because they’re not.” 

No one, including the county superintendents organization and the California Department of Education, has done a comprehensive analysis of LCAPs. There is no manageable way to dissect and aggregate disparate data from 1,000 districts. Jerry Brown intended it that way, to encourage districts to be independent without state interference.

There isn’t a database of LCAPs. It’s what people can gather from district or county office websites by scraping (the data),” said Julien Lafortune, a research fellow for the Public Policy Institute of California.

But Lafortune said the findings in the Public Advocates/ACLU report were consistent with what others have observed, including former California State Auditor Elaine Howle. She was highly critical of districts’ spending and a lack of transparency in a 2019 analysis of only three districts’ LCAPs. Lafortune’s own work in 2021, which found that only 55% of funding for high-needs students made it to the schools they attended, provides research supporting Newsom’s equity multiplier.

Tornatore said the County Superintendents Association is taking the report seriously and plans to meet soon with Public Advocates. If the governor and the Legislature have guidance for LCAP monitoring, they should provide “clear expectations” in statute, because county offices are “often left to be the interpreters and the implementers of the ed code,” she said.

She added that the county superintendents appreciate the report’s call for more resources and support to county offices, because the LCAP “is one of the most challenging, complex pieces of our educational system, without a doubt.”

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