A New Path Forward For California School Funding

So last week was about tax dollars and this week is about school funding.  I promise that I’m not just going to talk about money issues but tis the season.  Next week, I’ll try and talk about puppies or ice cream or something fun.

With Governor Brown proposing to fully fund the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) for California Schools one year early, we now find ourselves at a new crossroads.  The Governor terms out next year and although the funding formula will stay in place, many new ideas are going to be put forward as we look to the next stage of California school funding.  Let me start that conversation with a new idea that I have been thinking about.

First, this is not a discussion or plea for additional funding for California schools.  That is a given.  Our state remains among the poorest funded educational systems in the nation.  This needs to change immediately. Lots of people and organizations are addressing this.  Most recently, CSBA has put forth a resolution for school district endorsement calling for full and fair funding for California Schools.  Let’s do that.

The conversation that I want to have is around how funding is given to districts.  The LCFF process is an equity-based funding system.  Districts get base funding, supplemental funding based upon numbers of students in at-risk populations, and concentration funding for districts that have large numbers of students in these at-risk populations.  Before the LCFF, the state would give general funding that school districts could use as they determined and also categorical funding.  Categorical funding could only be used as designated.  Elaborate systems of funding and accountability were set up to coordinate this targeted and convoluted system of school budgeting.  Eventually, there were over 50 categorical programs in place.  When LCFF came into existence, most districts did not miss the complication of categorical programs and they appreciated the new local decision making they were given.  However, every year, there is increasing pressure to bring categorical programs back.

My idea starts with retaining the basic concept of LCFF.  It has accomplished a more equitable distribution of funding to districts that have greater needs. There is a great uproar in many communities, though, that the money is not going to support the students that generated the additional funding.  This complaint is creating much of the push backwards toward categorical funding.  There is also severe pressure put on school districts to put much of this new funding into teacher salaries.  This combined set of pressures around what priorities drive district spending and how much direction the state gives districts on this spending threaten to undermine the entire LCFF process.

Let’ begin with some basic agreements.  I believe that teachers deserve to be well compensated for their work.  School district employees as a whole are often on a compensation rollercoaster that goes up steeply in good times and drops in bad times.  This creates organizational turmoil for most school districts.  Districts and employee unions are frequently in conflict over these dramatic shifts in funding where employees are trying to get more compensation today because tomorrow may bring furloughs and budget cuts.  This dynamic creates the community angst over dollars going toward compensation when it could be supporting educational programs, materials, and facilities.

Here’s my idea.  What if the state didn’t tell us how to spend the money but they were more prescriptive about what percentage gets spent on compensation?  I would start with the same LCFF base, supplemental, and concentration buckets.  I would also add a few new categorical program areas that would be funded on state derived formulas.

The categorical programs would be dollars that are set aside for district cost increases that are created by state action or market economics.  These programs could include increased pension costs, increased utility costs, increased special education costs, increased step and column costs, etc.  The goal would be to limit the number of categoricals to areas that have to be addressed in the district budget anyway.  This should not be a tool to create new programs!

Supplemental and concentration dollars would then continue to be used to support at-risk students.  There could be greater restrictions put in place on how these dollars could be spent.  Any dollars spent in these areas on compensation would have to go toward additional support personnel or specialized funding supporting teachers in high risk schools.  This money could not be spent on generic raises.

Finally, there would be the new base funding.  The state could end most of the labor strife that we currently see by dictating that districts would have to spend a percentage of these dollars on total compensation for employees.  If the state determined that 80% or 85% (many districts fall in this range) of these dollars went toward employee compensation, then the remainder of the money after that would be available for true district discretion.

There would have to be provisions made for districts in financial difficulties.  If districts were in danger of becoming insolvent there could be different sets of rules that kicked in that diverted funds toward district solvency.

If the state were to help districts pay their mandatory cost increases first and then dictated a statewide percentage going toward employee compensation, many problems would be eliminated. Communities would be satisfied that their children’s needs were being met. Districts would be able to pay their bills and not have to fight with their teachers over compensation.  Teachers would be able to expect a fair process for getting compensation every year.  Everyone wins in this model which is why is probably will never be adopted.

That’s this week’s Cup of Supe.  Once again, bigger than a cup but not the tureen that I could have written.  Until next time.  I’ll try and remember – puppies, ice cream, or anything that isn’t about dollars.





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