News analysis: LCFF can’t fix schools by itself

News analysis: LCFF can’t fix schools by itself

(Editor's note) This story has been updated to include public comment.

(Calif.) A report out last week from the Education Trust-West once again raised the thorny issue of whether state funding aimed at disadvantaged students can or should be used to pay teacher salaries and benefits.

Although the authors of report didn’t directly confront the question, they pointed out that while the state’s highest-poverty districts were getting more funding–often more than the state’s most affluent districts–the dollars were not reaching the classroom.

That is, the big jump in state support hasn’t translated into more college readiness curriculum or student services like counselors and librarians.  Instead, the study concluded, districts were using the money elsewhere, on expenses that are not directly helping the targeted, underserved students.

While there is little evidence that argues against the Ed-Trust report, there’s also little chance that spending patterns in most district will change much anytime soon.

And the barriers aren’t just with state laws, as the non-profit advocacy group suggested–its basic economics.

Historically, about 85 percent of the budget at the average school district in California that is in good financial shape goes to pay salaries and benefits, said Michael Fine, chief administrative officer at the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, or FCMAT.

“That only leaves 15 cents on every dollar for everything else you are doing,” Fine said, from electricity to lawn mowers, classroom chairs, bus fuel and plumbing fixtures.

Where the LCFF dollars are supposed to fit into the school budget has been a topic for debate in Sacramento since legislative leaders and Gov. Jerry Brown first advanced the legislation that completely restructured the school-state funding relationship. As defined, the LCFF dollars are intended to give added support to three subgroups–English learners, low-income students and foster youth.

Some advocates for underserved students have advanced the argument that the LCFF money should only be used to add to existing programs and services similar to the long-standing federal rule that demanded ‘supplement not supplant.’ So far, however, that position doesn’t seem to hold sway in the Legislature or the governor’s office.

The notion that LCFF funds could be used for salaries and benefits was affirmed in a 2015 letter to the field from state schools chief, Tom Torlakson. He said the only condition was that districts had to explain in the Local Control Accountability Plan how the higher salaries would ultimately benefit the target subgroups.

Without a raise in teacher pay, for instance, a district might have “difficulties in recruiting, hiring or retaining qualified staff,” Torlakson observed.

Reversing that opinion will be costly—both in political capital and in money.

The powerful California Teachers Association has strongly backed the argument that LCFF money is on the table as far as contract negotiations go and few in the Capitol appear too interested in challenging the position.

At the same time, however, the coalition of advocates for low-income families was able to get Brown and legislative leaders to agree to adding an accountability component to the LCFF package in 2012. The Local Control Accountability Plan requires district to engage parents and other community stakeholders in spending decisions and setting academic goals for their students.

The same advocates have attempted since then to get lawmakers to strengthen the LCAP, even to the point of establishing state standards for where the money could be used.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, has introduced legislation again this session aimed at making district budgets more transparent as to where the LCFF money is going.

But CTA isn’t the only political hurdle the advocates for the low-income community have run into. There’s also Jerry Brown’s often repeated principle of subsidiarity–or the idea that local leaders should make financial decisions based on what works best for their communities.

The LCFF was born out of Brown’s belief that school budgets should be the domain of local leaders—not Sacramento. His hope was that when communities are invested in the process, they would also be more engaged in what goes on at the schools and better positioned to hold administrators and board members accountable for student performance.

Brown has resisted most attempts to revise that theory, and by the time a new governor is elected next year, it will be difficult for the new administration to change directions.


Letter to the editor from Angelica Jongco, senior staff attorney at Public Advocates:

First, not every district can use the supplemental and concentration dollars generated by high-need students to raise staff salaries and benefits because they will not be able to make the necessary showing under the law. As the Torlakson letter makes clear, to invest these special funds in salary or benefits increases a district must demonstrate “difficulties” with recruiting, hiring, or retention that have adverse impacts on the educational program for high-need students. Further, they must tie the impact of the new investment in salary or benefits to some measurable outcome such as "a reduction of teacher turnover or the retention of experienced classroom teachers” and describe how the investiment is principally directed and effective to district goals for high-need student achievement. In other words, how it is an “upgrade” of the educational program, as the regulations require. (See 5 CCR 15496(b) pasted below.) As our recent Long Beach Unified complaint asserts, not every district will be able to make this showing. (See the complaint here and the analysis of this point at pages 6-7.)

Second, our position as advocates (and that of many of our partners) is not that all LCFF funding must be used to increase or improve services for high-need students. In particular, the vast majority of the LCFF funding  is comprised of “base” dollars, generated by all students, that can be used for any purpose. But as to the new supplemental and concentration dollars generated by high-need students, the law is absolutely clear that “this funding shall be used to increase or improve services for” high-need students in proportion to the additional funds these students generate. (See relevant expenditure regulation 5 CCR 15496(a) below.) This “proportionality obligation” is key to the equity promise at the heart of the formula. Districts must meet this obligation each year. And this obligation has been growing from year to year over the past four years in districts that received significant supplemental and concentration dollars. As a result, four years later, one would expect to have seen an upgrade in services for high-need students in ways that exceed the level of services they were receiving prior to LCFF when no such proportionality obligation existed.