Should districts be handed full control over spending?
To mitigate the impact of substantially cutting spending for K-12 schools, the Legislature agreed to temporarily let school districts decide how to spend money that had been earmarked for dozens of special programs, from adult education to teacher training. Now, as part of his plan to reform how education is funded, Gov. Brown is proposing to go a big step further and give local districts total and permanent flexibility over nearly all of the remaining categorical programs. He also wants to drop two dozen mandated programs, leaving districts the option of continuing to fund them without state reimbursement. Is spending flexibility over billions of dollars, ending state control over what the Legislature deemed important priorities, wise policy? Can districts be trusted to do right by children? And suppose they don’t – what then?
To explore this issue, we asked four leaders with different perspectives: Jill Wynns, president of the California School Boards Association; John Affeldt, managing partner of the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates; Bob Wells, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators; and Erin Gabel, Director of Government Affairs for State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. What do you think? Please share your views.
Jill Wynns: Local boards better prepared for tough decisions
When local school board members are faced with the agonizing necessity of cutting programs because of the severe funding cuts in recent years, they begin by discussing the priorities of the community. That’s a nice way of saying people yelling at us from the podium, labor organizations and board members debating bad choices and worse choices. We have increased class size, laid off teachers and school employees, ended programs, and even shortened the school year, denying our students the instruction and support that they need.
Ever since Proposition 13 transferred taxing authority to Sacramento, the Legislature maintained state control during healthy economic times when there’s money to start new programs they can put their names on, and advocated for local control when it’s time to cut. Of course it is hard to make destructive cuts that deny jobs to constituents and services to children. However, that is what school board members often face, lately too often. That is the reality for California school boards in a post-Prop 13 world. Sacramento will spend every penny when there is money, but when it is time to cut, that is our job.
How do we deal with the slashing of funds for K-12 education? One of the few tools available is the new categorical flexibility to spend money that used to be designated for specific purposes and programs. Most school districts have transferred this money into their general funds to minimize the impact of cuts on the classroom. Some have urged that the flexibility be made permanent. Inevitably, there is growing advocacy for various programs to be reinstated and protected. The target of these efforts is the Legislature; the goal is the recategorizing of this funding.
After more than 30 years, why do we find it hard to trust local elected school board members to make thoughtful decisions? Who is better prepared to handle the tough choices that need to be made? Who knows the priorities of the local community better than those who spend their time talking to local parents, students, teachers, advocates, and citizens?
Organizations like the California and National School Boards Associations provide professional training for board members. Letting local boards make budget decisions will make it harder for advocates to influence the budget. Instead of making their case to a handful of legislators in a committee room in the Capitol, they will have to go to the affected communities. Because the school boards are elected by the citizens in those communities, we can trust them to make the tough decisions that are best for their schools. That is our job, and we do it, no matter how difficult.
Jill Wynns is the president of the California School Boards Association. She has been on the San Francisco Board of Education since 1993, longer than any other school board member in San Francisco history. Her areas of expertise include California school finance, urban education and governance, charter schools, school health programs, healthy school nutrition programs, and labor-management cooperation.
John Affeldt: Give districts targeted – not total – flexibility
The governor’s bold weighted-student funding proposal is an idea that the Legislature needs to take on this year to correct the indefensible inequities and irrationalities in our school finance system. But, in line with a key “local control” component of the governor’s plan, is California really ready to turn over to districts total flexibility in how they spend all their dollars? I think not. Not only would it be wise to transition more cautiously, but directing districts to employ a targeted flexibility to help the neediest students and their schools actually has the potential to increase the very local control the governor hopes to spur.
Public Advocates and the many community groups with whom we work are willing to embrace a historic shift away from the constraints of categorical spending designed (initially, at least) to protect the neediest students from local neglect. The flexibility that districts gain, however, should apply to which programs and strategies to pursue, not to which students to help. Modifying the funding system to focus more explicitly on directing gap-closing resources and attention to the neediest students makes sense – but obviously only if those students are actually guaranteed they will benefit from the new resources. Targeted flexibility to the neediest schools, not total flexibility, is the way to ensure that.
Sacramento has the constitutional and moral obligation to ensure that our neediest students receive equal access to a high-quality education, especially when local adult priorities may head in other directions. Especially when money becomes tight, funding in California seems naturally to flow away from low-income students and English learners. As well, on more than one occasion a largely white school board in a heavily Latino district has favored the majority white schools; other times, the issue has been a superintendent with an agenda focused elsewhere, such as on maximizing support to high performers; or a local union prioritizing salary increases across the district over serving the neediest schools; or an influential set of parents whose children are not among the neediest.
There are ways to target funds to the neediest schools without over-complexifying the system. A few modifications to how districts currently account for funds and report expenditures down to the site level, together with public hearing requirements when districts choose to deviate from spending weighted funds at the schools that “earned” them, would go a long way toward both ensuring weighted funds are spent on the neediest students and involving local communities in those decisions. Maintaining school site councils to oversee how weighted funds are spent at the school and incentivizing robust site-based budgeting as Twin Rivers employs could extend the governor’s notion of a new local control to every school site.
Now that would really be a profound democratic shift. Rather than only having local boards approve annual budgets, parents and students could engage in real ways on how public funds are best spent at their school and in their community.
John Affeldt is managing attorney at Public Advocates Inc., a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization that challenges the systemic causes of poverty and racial discrimination by strengthening community voices in public policy. He is a leading voice on educational equity issues and has been recognized by California Lawyer Magazine as a California Attorney of the Year, The Recorder as an Attorney of the Year, and a Leading Plaintiff Lawyer in America by Lawdragon Magazine.
Bob Wells: State should recognize its role, then get out of the way
Our association, the Association of California School Administrators, has long argued that those closest to students – teachers, principals, parents, local school superintendents, and school boards – know best how to allocate resources to meet local students’ needs. The state’s role is to set the academic standards, adopt the assessment to measure how well students and schools are meeting the standards, provide the necessary funding, and then step out of the way so educators and students can focus on academic achievement.
It’s quite clear that aligning instruction with the new Common Core standards and streamlining academic assessment systems are high priorities for educators in this state. But the current lack of adequate funding and the threat of additional trigger cuts create massive uncertainties for local school districts.
While we won’t know for a few weeks what the governor’s May Revision budget proposal will hold for schools, we are certain about the following:
- Additional funding for education is necessary in order to prevent deeper cuts to the educational program;
- There are far too many categorical programs, created at the state level, dictating how school dollars should be allocated at the local level;
- Unfunded and unnecessary state and federal mandates on school district spending must be eliminated.
Gov. Brown is a proponent of ensuring that local districts, teachers, principals, superintendents, and school boards have broad flexibility in determining how to allocate funding for their schools and students. He wants to eliminate categorical programs and abolish unnecessary mandates. We agree with his assertion that local school districts know best how to determine where resources should be allocated to improve learning.
The current school system has successfully served millions of students, but it also has failed millions, especially poor children and children of color. The time is long overdue for a broad discussion about measures necessary for equitable distribution of resources to meet all of our students’ needs.
Policy discussions about school funding flexibility must allow for timely debate. Determining how to streamline categorical programs, eliminate mandates, and allocate new resources must focus on what’s best for all students. Moreover, funding flexibility must be coupled with a robust accountability system to ensure all students are beneficiaries of fiscal reform.
Bob Wells has been executive director of the Association of California School Administrators since 1998. He has strengthened ACSA’s role as a leader on issues related to leadership coaching and teaching and learning and has sharpened its ability to influence public policy. He has been honored for his leadership by such entities as the American Association of Society Executives, California Council for Adult Education, California Latino Superintendents and Administrators, and the PTA.
Erin Gabel: Grave concern about unintended consequences
Regardless of the fiscal climate, it makes sense to consider whether lifting policy and funding restrictions would result in better outcomes for California’s students.
However, the administration’s budget proposal to replace many current education mandates with complete program flexibility coupled with a weighted student formula requires thoughtful consideration about the state’s fundamental role in public education and the outcomes and access we expect for all our students.
While Superintendent Torlakson appreciates the proposal’s aim to focus and simplify school funding, we have some grave concerns about the potential for unintended consequences when mandates are replaced by complete flexibility in the context of a fiscal crisis and a narrow accountability system.
There are four principles to consider when weighing the worth of state education mandates and categorical programs:
- The state should provide maximum flexibility at the local level, while holding local educational agencies accountable for results. It makes sense to re-visit some of the detailed, prescriptive requirements associated with some mandates and categoricals to see if the state interest can be served while providing local flexibility.
- The state has a fundamental responsibility to ensure that the basics exist uniformly in all schools, and it should retain mandates necessary to ensure equity across the state and accountability to voters. The mandates in this category include student health and safety protections, access to education for underserved populations, academic standards and data collection on academic performance, and transparency to voters.
- Mandates that are retained should be fully funded.
- Finally, we must realize that the elimination of any current mandate now funded through the Commission on State Mandates process that is popular at the local level, in this fiscal environment, is a budget cut. Any school district that does opt into continuing a previously mandated program would be forced to either cut these services or others if the state decides not to provide funding.
Many successful and important state mandates and categoricals are at risk in the administration’s proposal, including our only system for tracking the childhood obesity epidemic, our state’s class size reduction program, the high school science graduation requirement, and our system of educational supports to help English language learners acquire English proficiency.
The current “flexibility” experiment in the state budget has devastated those categoricals allowed to be flexible. Adult education, gifted student education, and the arts at the local level have been eliminated or slashed due to hard choices in these hard economic times. Short of an adequate accountability system focused on student outcomes and a better economic climate, these budget proposals may mean more systemic losses at the state and local level under a mask of flexibility.
The administration’s budget proposal continues an important discussion on how to best streamline and simplify school funding, and the governor should be applauded for his leadership and for providing a starting place for a crucial and timely public debate. It is critical that any changes to mandated programs and categoricals be carefully considered in light of the state’s interests in student educational outcomes, health, safety, and accountability, and taken in context with the current fiscal climate.
Erin Gabel is the Director of Government Affairs for State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and the California Department of Education, and is responsible for the Superintendent’s and the Department’s involvement in state and federal budget and legislative processes. She previously was then-Assemblymember Torlakson’s Legislative Director, consulting on education and health policy and general legislation. Erin was one of the founding staff members of the Partnership for Children and Youth, as their first Children Nutrition Project Director, and now serves on their advisory board.