Democratic lawmakers in Colorado just approved the first major overhaul of that state’s school finance system in 20 years. Colorado is moving to a more equitable and transparent funding system with strong accountability provisions that offer valuable lessons to California lawmakers.
Gov. Brown’s recently proposed “Local Control Funding Formula” would simplify school finance, offer school districts flexibility over more than 50 previously restricted funding streams, and provide more resources for disadvantaged students. Gov. Brown deserves credit — the proposal is a very good start. It is simpler, fairer, and more transparent than the state’s current haphazard school finance system.
Yet, there are serious issues the governor’s plan fails to address, including inequities at schools within the same district and a lack of transparent reporting of funding allocations at the school level.
A U.S. Department of Education report analyzing school-level financial data from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 found many high-poverty schools receive less than their fair share of state and local funding. Title I funding is supposed to bolster schools serving disadvantaged children, but the data shows more than 40 percent of schools that received federal Title I money got less state and local money for teachers and other personnel than the schools that didn't receive Title I money.
In Los Angeles Unified, for example, 141 schools serving disadvantaged kids were still funded at a lower rate than the other schools in the district — despite receiving extra Title I money from the federal government.
Similarly, the Center for American Progress found California schools serving student populations that are 90 percent or more nonwhite got $191 less per pupil than other schools, and $4,380 less per pupil than the schools with student populations where white students make up 90 percent or more of the student body.
Unfortunately, Gov. Brown’s current plan doesn’t address this imbalance. In contrast, the Colorado school finance legislation tackles the disparities and ensures school funding reaches the neediest students.
First, it requires that all the extra funding intended for at-risk and English Language Learning students be distributed on a per-pupil basis at the school in which those students enroll. Districts can’t move the money to other schools.
Second, the legislation gives the principals of those schools full autonomy on how to use the funds for their disadvantaged students. If that school has an effective program, the school can pour money into it.
Finally, the legislation requires schools and districts to report their per-pupil spending at the school level. This transparency makes school-to-school and district-to-district comparisons accurate, meaningful and easy to do. The Colorado law also demands creation of a web portal that will present school- and district-level data in a user-friendly format for parents and the public.
The California legislature should follow suit and require schools to report this school-level financial data. The state is already required to collect much of this data for the Federal Office of Civil Rights. And every California school is required to create a “Single Plan for Student Achievement” and accountability. Copying Colorado and making school-level spending data publicly available will shine a light on whether the state and districts are putting money where it needs to be.
Gov. Brown should also follow Colorado’s lead in giving principals autonomy to spend school resources on the specific needs of their students. Oakland and San Francisco schools have utilized this technique to great success and Los Angeles now has more than 150 schools receiving funding on a per-pupil basis through the “Budgeting for Student Achievement” pilot program that attempts to tailor budgets based on a school’s specific academic needs and priorities.
While Gov. Brown’s school finance plan is certainly a huge improvement over the current unintelligible and unfair funding system; it should go even further in terms of equity, transparency and local control.
Principals and teachers undoubtedly have the most knowledge about where money could best be spent to help their students. Giving principals control of the purse strings while also requiring schools and school districts to show the public how they spend their money would significantly increase accountability and represent meaningful education reform.
Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation. This column first appeared in the Orange County Register.