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California Achievement Gap Challenges School Spending Billions

When Jerry Brown returned to the governorship in 2011, a quarter of a century after his first term as California’s highest office ended, one of his first goals was to change the way the state funds government. education of nearly 6 million public school students.

Brown had a plan, adapted from the theory of Michael Kirst, a distinguished scholar and longtime educational adviser to Brown, to focus more money on students who are chronically behind in academic achievement, although those from poor families and/or do not speak English. at home.

Kirst called it a “weighted formula,” and the legislation he and Brown persuaded the Legislature to pass a decade ago was called the “Local Control Funding Formula,” or LCFF. This would give school districts with large numbers of at-risk students in these two categories additional funds assuming they would improve outcomes.

The legislation eased the transition by also eliminating most “categorical aid” – money for specific education programs – and thus giving local school authorities more flexibility to spend local property tax and credit money. state budgets.

Over the past decade, Brown, his successor Gavin Newsom, and the Legislative Assembly have allocated tens of billions of dollars to the LCFF in hopes of closing what educators call the achievement gap between children deemed to have need extra educational help – about 60% of public school enrollment – ​​and their more privileged peers.

Did it work? Follow-up studies indicate that there may have been a slight narrowing of the gap, but everything the LCFF achieved disappeared during the COVID-19 pandemic. At-risk children have been deeply affected by school closures because they had less ability to engage in distance learning, dubbed ‘Zoom school’, and less access to tutoring than families more well off.

The impacts of the pandemic aside, the LCFF has failed to deliver on its promise of transformative impact. Even though spending more money would have narrowed the gap — an unproven theory — many school districts, especially those in urban areas dominated by hardline politics, often fail to focus the extra funds on at-risk children.

Brown insisted that the funds go to the districts, not the specific schools where the targeted children were the most numerous, saying he trusted local educators to spend the money wisely. He called it ‘subsidiarity’, adapting the term from an obscure theological theory.

Education reform groups have criticized Brown’s hands-off approach, saying local school systems need more oversight to prevent them from diverting LCFF funds for other purposes. However, in a recent podcast interview marking the formula’s 10th anniversary, Brown complained that districts weren’t given enough flexibility.

“We spend too much time having nothing to do with education. Its responsibility, its finances, its compliance. It really is a harmful development,” Brown said during the interview. “I hope lawmakers are aware that they have gone too far…we must seek the wisest course.”

Meanwhile, in a separate 10th anniversary interview, Kirst said he regrets that local districts have not used the flexibility of subsidiarity to become more creative in educating children who are falling behind.

“It was their chance to move beyond stereotypical budgets and budget complexity to create a three-year budget plan with clear priorities,” Kirst lamented. “And generally I feel like they didn’t.”

Neither of the two LCFF fathers has offered an assessment of whether the children he claims to be helping have, in fact, been helped. This lack may indicate that both know that the LCFF – as implemented and not as envisioned – has not been a resounding success.

California has doubled the amount it spends per student on tuition over the past decade, but in national tests of student achievement the state still lags other states that spend far less, while tests states tell us that the achievement gap remains unacceptable.

Dan Walters is a CalMatters columnist.

California Daily Newspapers

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