Strong Accountability in CA School Funding Reform Key to Maximizing Student Achievement

(The following OpEd appeared in EdSource)

By Jim Wunderman
Many of us in the business community supported Governor Jerry Brown’s proposal to overhaul the state’s antiquated and cumbersome school funding system and replace it with the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). We have long advocated for a system with greater transparency, accountability and coherence that would invest in the achievement of all students to generate an educated citizenry and skilled workforce. This is key to California’s prosperity, growth and well-being.

Now comes the hard part. The State Board of Education this week will begin crafting the detailed policies to determine how school districts will be expected to 1) use supplemental funding they receive to benefit high needs students; and, 2) develop comprehensive plans for student achievement and success called Local Control Accountability Plans, which must also demonstrate how the district’s budget will achieve that vision.

In the lead up to the State Board’s work, there is growing tension between two seemingly laudable, but increasingly oppositional goals of flexibility and accountability. At issue is how much discretion local school districts should have in determining how best to achieve LCFF’s intended goals versus whether the state should map out explicit and measurable standards.

The problem we see with this dynamic is that neither flexibility nor accountability is the goal we must strive to attain: student achievement is. Flexibility and accountability are simply tools we can use to get there. So, the question we should be asking is not whether school districts should have more flexibility or increased accountability, but which approach – or more realistically what balance between them – is likely to yield the best results for students.

The bottom line is that while we know what LCFF intends to achieve, we do not yet know exactly how school districts will be required to achieve it. For example, while we expect that streamlining the funding system and bringing decision making authority to the local level should increase transparency and community engagement, what will school districts actually be required to share and what will the community’s seat at the table look like?

We also must be honest and acknowledge that there will be significant pressure on local school boards and Superintendents to influence their spending decisions. The State Board must create robust and meaningful implementation policies that safeguard against these forces and protect the students LCFF was designed to serve.

Our members realize that the accountability process cannot be overly cumbersome. We want to be realistic while being extremely careful to get the incentives right. Therefore, accountability cannot be about just spending more money or adding more programs. It must be about continuous improvements in outcomes and cost effectiveness. It comes up in surveys time and again that the public do not believe education funding is being spent effectively and efficiently. We must be able to demonstrate that it is if we hope to have more of it to invest in California students at some point.

Our business members are greatly concerned about the possible direction the State Board may take. It is imperative that we pay close attention at their next meeting on November 7, to ensure the LCFF implementation structure that is now under construction meshes with the blueprint we all bought into to close achievement gaps and improve California’s economy.

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