How California can help at-risk students close performance gaps – The Mercury News

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When Jerry Brown returned to the governorship of California in 2011 after a 28-year absence, he proposed a major overhaul of public school funding.

For many decades, school finance was pretty straightforward. Local school boards would decide how much money they would need each year and adjust property tax rates to generate the revenue.

The state was at best a peripheral actor, allocating money to somewhat equalize per-pupil spending in response to a series of state Supreme Court decisions in the 1970s.

That all changed in 1978, a year Brown was seeking his second term as governor, when voters passed the iconic Proposition 13 property tax cap.

School districts and other local government units such as cities and counties could no longer adjust property tax rates, and overall property tax revenue plummeted.

The state responded by taking primary responsibility for funding schools, largely on a per-student basis. In 1988, at the behest of the California Teachers Association and other education groups, voters passed another measure, Proposition 98, to give schools a guaranteed share of state revenues.

That’s the system Brown inherited when he became governor a second time and championed a long-discussed reform dubbed the “weighted funding formula.” Rather than providing per-student funding, the system would allocate extra money to mostly poor and non-white students who struggled to meet academic achievement standards.

Declaring that “equal treatment of children in unequal situations is not justice,” Brown persuaded the Legislature in 2013 to pass the “Local Control Funding Formula” or LCFF, a complex system for school systems with large numbers of “at-risk” students. to qualify for extra funds.

LCFF had – and still has – some basic flaws.

It was assumed that local school officials would spend the money effectively on target students with only cursory state oversight. Brown, a former seminary student, called it “subsidiarity,” drawing the phrase from a principle of Catholic social teaching.

This shortcoming is compounded by another – providing extra funds to districts rather than individual schools with large numbers of at-risk children has diluted their potential impact.

In practice, subsidiarity has been just a political ploy, allowing Brown and other political figures to wash their hands of any responsibility for results that have been mediocre at best. Lawsuits by civil rights groups have been the only real oversight of how schools have spent billions of LCFF dollars.

That’s the system Gavin Newsom inherited when he succeeded Brown in 2019. In his proposed 2023-24 budget, Newsom wants to tweak it in hopes of making it more effective.

Newsom would allocate an additional $300 million to schools with the highest levels of poverty, dubbed the “equity multiplier,” while avoiding a demand from black lawmakers for extra funds specifically for black students, who as a group have the lowest educational outcomes. .

The Legislature’s Black Caucus is unhappy with Newsom’s approach, which also includes more assistance to school districts that fail to meet performance standards. Congressional budget analyst Gabe Patek is also highly skeptical, albeit for different reasons.

Patek’s office, in a recent report, points to the LCFF’s structural flaws and its lack of tangible improvements for at-risk students, and states that providing another $300 million is less important than “increasing transparency to ensure that funding really reaches the schools and schools with the greatest need subgroups of students”.

There’s an old adage about throwing good money after bad that applies to the LCFF dilemma. You will never be able to close the achievement gap until there is a more direct responsibility to use your money for its intended purposes and actually improve the bottom line.

Dan Walters is a columnist for CalMatters.

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