Calif. districts see mixed successes under new funding law, study finds

New research led by Julie Marsh and other members of a research group reveals complexities of policy

By Ross Brenneman

Photo credit: Image by Chris Dlugosz via Flickr Creative Commons

The California law designed to improve how state schools are funded is succeeding on many fronts, according to a new report by the Local Control Funding Formula Research Collaborative.

Signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2013, the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) was designed to expand local fiscal control and alter education governance while targeting support toward low-income students, English learners and foster youth.

The new report shows that LCFF is meeting many of its intended goals, with districts trying new approaches to engaging parents, and working to break down silos within central offices. Still, some districts have struggled with implementation, and many districts lack organizational capacity to fulfill the complete vision of the law, the authors write.

“The findings point to some clear areas where the state and districts need to make adjustments,” said Julie Marsh, an associate professor of education policy at USC Rossier and a member of the LCFF Research Collaborative. “Districts need help in understanding the intent of the policy and more support in key areas, such as how to relate investment decisions to outcomes, how to evaluate progress toward goals and how to broaden and deepen stakeholder engagement.”

The LCFF Research Collaborative is a group of leading California education researchers from various organizations that has been studying LCFF implementation for three years. Postdoctoral Fellow Michelle Hall, second-year PhD student Taylor N. Allbright and first-year PhD student Tasmin Dhaliwal contributed to the report, along with faculty and students from several other organizations.

Continued stakeholder struggles

For this study, the authors wanted to learn about how resources were being used to address equity issues and whether implementation of LCFF advanced ongoing work implementing Common Core State Standards, which started just before LCFF became law. The researchers also wanted to understand how districts were involving stakeholders in the development of plans to meet annual learning goals for all students, known as Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAP).

The new report is based on eight case studies: seven of traditional districts and one of a charter management organization. Researchers conducted 151 interviews with administrators, parents, community members, union leaders and board members in fall 2016 and examined a range of relevant documents.

In previous reports, the LCFF Research Collaborative had found districts having difficulty in fostering “meaningful stakeholder engagement,” and the new report shows that such struggles have continued, although leaders are trying out new strategies and seeking ways to improve engagement.

Parents remain the central target of engagement efforts across all districts, the study found, but many districts still had relatively low levels of parent participation and trouble attracting broad demographics of parents, despite trying to make accommodations for time, food and child care in order to help parents attend relevant district meetings. Most districts also utilized surveys as a form of outreach.

Among non-parent stakeholder engagement, however, districts showed wide variation. Seven districts surveyed teachers and principals, although some of the districts had tepid relationships with their teachers’ unions, which may have caused difficulty with teacher engagement.

As for student engagement, some districts showed more proactiveness than others. In one district, the LCAP lead administrator met with student leaders, hosted pizza lunch meetings and held focus groups targeted toward English-learners and foster youth. In two other districts, administrators relied on a student advisory committee.

While community-based organizations—mostly nonprofits—worked to be active participants in the LCAP process, school boards demonstrated little engagement in the process, aside from signing off on final LCAPs in six districts.

“The absence of school board involvement has been a surprise to the research team,” said Hall, the postdoctoral scholar. “The ideal of the policy was to build local democratic engagement and we would expect that engagement to include the locally elected school board.”

Among other findings:

  • Districts used their supplemental and concentration funding on target student groups like English-learners, rather than using funds to cover expenses not related to targeted groups
  • While some districts brought their LCAP into close alignment with preexisting strategic plans, some districts had little coherence around long-term visions
  • Some districts are confused about what the equity focus of the law is meant to accomplish, no doubt in part a result of varying definitions of equity
  • Districts vary widely in how much of a role their LCAPs give toward implementation of the Common Core State Standards.

The implementation of the California school finance law is being watched closely by lawmakers and education policy and school finance experts nationwide. Several states have been working through attempts to reform education finance, and legislative proposals in states like Illinois, South Carolina, Connecticut, Washington, and Kansas have elements that mirror aspects of LCFF.

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