$1b in common core money comes with lots of flexibility, some strings

California school districts will have wide discretion in spending the additional $1.25 billion in this year's budget to help them integrate new academic content standards, but they must first adopt spending plans showing how the money will be used and follow those up with detailed expense reports to the state.

The spending plans, expected to explain how each district, county office, charter or state special school will spend the money to implement the common core state standards and associated assessments, are separate from those required under Gov. Jerry Brown's new school finance program - the Local Control Funding Formula.

Both mandates, however, were adopted as part of the state's 2013-14 budget package, approved by the Legislature June 15 and expected to be signed by Brown before the Oct. 13 deadline.

The language in the budget bill on common core funding (AB 86, Sec. 85) makes clear the monies are to be used for three primary purposes:

- Professional development - training teachers and administrators to deliver the standards.

- Instructional materials aligned to the standards.

- And the technology needed to carry out the instruction and assessments.

Aside from those conditions, and the required spending plans and expense reports, districts are free to choose how to best use the funds to meet their individual needs.

The language in the statute constitutes the requirements for how [local educational agencies] spend the money; it's exceptionally flexible and, we believe, very well targeted to the primary expenditures needed for common core implementation," said Erin Gabel, legislative advocate for state schools chief Tom Torlakson and the California Department of Education.

"[CDE] has no formal role in providing any kind of regulatory authority over how the common core block grant is supposed to be spent; it's very clear in the statute that districts have three areas they can spend it in - professional development, instructional materials and technology," she explained. "It's very open to interpretation for school districts as to how to meet their needs and their priorities in those three areas."

Still, the department, according to Gabel, will issue some type of notice or template for what districts should be prepared to include in their expense reports, due to CDE on or before July 1, 2015, "including but not limited to, specific purchases made and the number of teachers, administrators, or paraprofessional educators that received professional development," reads the bill language.

"The $1.25 billion is not in law yet," Gabel said. "Once that's set in stone, we'll be providing information to the field on what this expenditure report will be."

The reports will be aligned with established expense reporting processes that districts already do, said Gabel, noting "it's not our intent to create some new process."

In terms of guidance or technical assistance in implementing the new content standards, Gabel said districts seeking information can refer to a plan created by CDE and approved by the California State Board of Education last year to help them make the transition.

The Common Core State Standards Systems Implementation Plan, available on CDE's website at www.cde.ca.gov/re/cc/index.asp, outlines the philosophy of and strategies for successfully integrating the new K-12 content standards.

It is important to note, however, that a key accountability provision within the Local Control Funding Formula is that districts show the degree to which they have implemented the common core standards.

Also, technology expenditures for the new standards implementation can include equipment and training necessary to conduct the Smarter Balanced computer-aided assessments, set to be administered in the spring of 2015.

That start date remains somewhat uncertain as the legislation - AB 484 - that would implement the state's transition to the new computer-based, common core testing has not yet passed out of the Legislature; the administration has not taken a public position on it.

Gabel said she has no reason to believe the testing date will change since it was agreed upon when California joined the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium in 2011 to develop testing aligned to the common core.

"We have a great amount of support for our bill, and the date that is in the bill is derived from the implementation plan for the Smarter Balanced assessments and in a memorandum of understanding that the governor and the state board and the superintendent of public instruction signed in order to be part of that consortium," said Gabel. "The governor is a signatory on the MOU so we would hope he would continue to support the timeline that we have agreed to as a state."

Districts can expect to receive half the common core funds - distributed at an equal rate per-pupil based on prior year enrollment - in one installment near the end of August or first of September, according to Gabel. The remaining $625 million second-installment will be dispersed in November.