By Dan Walters | CalMatters Columnist
Early in his second governorship, Jerry Brown championed a major overhaul of school finance that, he pledged, would close the stubborn “achievement gap” that separated poor and English-learner students from children of more privileged circumstances.
Restrictions were lifted on some forms of state school aid, dubbed “categoricals,” thus giving local school districts more flexibility in spending, and they also were given extra money specifically to help underachieving children catch up.
However, the Local Control Funding Formula, as it was officially called, had some odd provisions, particularly what Brown called “subsidiarity,” which he derived from an obscure snippet of theological dogma.
As Brown explained it, he would trust local educators to spend the money effectively on its purposes, without tight oversight from Sacramento — a principle he did not apply to other state-local programs, by the way.
In practice, subsidiarity had two effects. It allowed school districts to loosely interpret whether the additional state aid met its intended purposes, and absolved Brown of any political accountability for outcomes. The latter was expressed in his response to one of the lawsuits that ensued. Having given local authorities money to attack inequity in schools, he said, the state was not legally responsible for whether at-risk children fared better.
In the absence of state oversight and accountability, civil rights and education reform groups, loosely gathered in an “equity coalition,” challenged the implementation of LCFF district-by-district, often via lawsuits, in attempts to ensure that the money was being used wisely.
Little by little, the patterns of neglect emerged in journalistic examinations of how the billions of extra dollars were spent, in academic studies and in a few official reviews.
Late last year, State Auditor Elaine Howle released a highly critical report on how school districts were spending LCFF funds, based on detailed examinations of three representative districts.
It decried the lack of accountability and was especially critical of one provision of the law allowing districts to convert LCFF funds unspent in one year into general revenues that could be spent for any purpose. Obviously, that’s a perverse incentive for districts to drag their feet on helping the at-risk students.
“Until the state ensures that districts spend all supplemental and concentration funds to benefit the intended student groups, and that they provide clear, accessible information regarding that spending … the intended student groups may not receive the services necessary to close the state’s persistent achievement gaps,” Howle told the Legislature.
The report provided an opening for Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a Democrat from San Diego who has been one of the state’s most persistent critics of LCFF’s shortcomings. Weber, an educator herself, sees it — correctly — as a fundamental issue of civil rights.
In January, Weber introduced Assembly Bill 1835, which would simply require LCFF funds to be used solely for the education of students they are supposed to help and not be diverted into general purposes, thus closing a yawning loophole that should never have been there in the first place.
It’s one of the relatively few bills that legislative leaders are allowing to proceed in this pandemic-tainted year. “The poor always pay more,” Weber told the Assembly Education Committee last week. “Even in this pandemic they are suffering the most.”
Indeed they are. Low-income workers are heavily impacted by the pandemic-induced recession and they and their children are the least able to participate in the computerized home schooling that was hastily implemented after schools were closed.
The circumstances are likely widening the achievement gap, making educating poor children even more urgent and neglecting their schooling even less tolerable
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.
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