Lawmakers should keep handcuffs off districts and extend local control
Once upon a time, school districts were mainly controlled by locally elected school boards and district management. The landmark court decisions of Serrano v. Priest (1971 & 1976) and the famous initiative, Proposition 13 (1978), unintentionally shifted the real control of local school districts from localities to Sacramento. Prop 13 was designed to keep senior citizens from losing their homes, and Serrano was meant to equalize school spending in rich and poor school districts. Together, they also changed the funding source of local school districts to the state capital. Consequently, over the decades Sacramento politicians have determined that since they were passing out the money, they should also make the rules. After all, everyone is an expert when it comes to education.
When a person becomes a school board member, a plethora of training ensues. Approximately 50 percent of what the new board member is taught revolves around not micromanaging and how to resist the temptation to do so. There is good reason for this. It is easy for elected public officials to think they have the answers concerning how to “fix” education in their town. Almost all, if not all, local school board members who micromanage, or attempt to, end up harming the district.
Micromanagement from Sacramento has the same effect. “All-knowing” politicians mandating how funds can be spent is not the best of ideas. These “reforms” often are packaged as “categorical programs” or “restricted funds.” Most of these “reforms” have affected local school districts negatively. Others have simply resulted in a poor use of precious funds. Some have been positive.
Over time, Sacramento has created more than 50 categorical programs that mandate how the funds provided can be spent. Programs such as Art and Music Block Grants, Class Size Reduction, International Baccalaureate, Oral Health Assessment, Physical Education Teacher Incentive Program, and many others all send funds to school districts with instructions on how they can and cannot be used.
Returning more actual control to local K-12 school districts would not be a “cure all,” but it would be a significant step in the right direction. Local school districts have a superior chance of putting educational dollars to better use. There are 1,047 school districts in California; they don’t always all need the same thing. Flexibility would be much smarter; it would allow each school district to decide what it needs and how best to spend the available funds. Additionally, reducing the number of the categorical programs would diminish some of the need for district office personnel to oversee the often complex requirements.
In the last few years, local districts have been given some flexibility regarding categorical funds. This is largely because state politicians are only in favor of local control when there are cuts to make. If there ever is additional money available, the state legislators will probably become experts again and tell local school districts how to spend it.
The state government should determine an equitable formula and send the funds to local school districts. Legislators should refrain from micromanagement and allow local districts who are familiar with the needs of the community to allot the funds in a manner that is best for the children they serve.
Stephen P. Blum is the president of the Ventura Unified Education Association and a member of the Ventura County Community College Board of Trustees. He served as a high school teacher for 25 years and as the cross-country and track coach at Buena High School for 22 years. He has a Juris Doctorate degree, a Master’s degree in education, and a Bachelor’s degree in history. His wife has been a teacher for 30 plus years. Their daughter is a student at California State University at Channel Islands.