As he introduced his final state budget in January, Gov. Jerry Brown faced sharp questions from reporters about the effectiveness of his landmark overhaul of public school finance.
His Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), which went into effect five years ago, provides more money to school districts with large numbers of poor and/or “English learner” students on the assumption that it will close the much-lamented “achievement gap” in learning.
Tens of billions of dollars have been committed to LCFF, and Brown’s 2018-19 budget would provide billions more.
However, school reform and civil rights groups have questioned whether the extra money is really being effectively spent on the targeted children, and have criticized Brown’s hands-off attitude toward monitoring spending and its results.
Most independent examinations of LCFF, including an exhaustive dive by CALmatters.org, have found little or no discernible closure of the achievement gap, which is why Brown faced the sharp questions.
“This is not going to be solved in Sacramento,” he replied, calling LCFF “basically a bottoms-up kind of thing” and adding, “we’ve done our part.”
He did make one tiny concession to critics, proposing that school districts be required to report LCFF spending in conjunction with their budgets.
Nevertheless, whether LCFF is, in fact, effectively helping disadvantaged students catch up to their more privileged classmates remains an issue.
Three weeks after Brown defended LCFF, he and other advocates received some good news from the Learning Policy Institute, a Palo-Alto-based education think tank.
A research team that had studied LCFF’s effects on high school students concluded that it had, indeed, raised graduation rates and improved academic achievement in other ways.
“We found strongly significant impacts of LCFF-induced increases in district revenue on average high school graduation rates for all children, poor children, and all racial ethnic groups that experienced such changes,” the team’s report said.
The report continued, “The results show average gains in mathematics and, to a smaller extent, in reading for all children. These effects are larger for children from low-income families and are particularly strong for high school mathematics achievement for these students.”
Its conclusion: “The country is watching as it is anticipated that, if successful, the new school finance measure may lead other states to adopt similar legislation. Time will tell. In the interim, this new research evidence suggests that money targeted to the needs of students, and allocated by local districts to meet those needs, can make a difference in student outcomes.”
However, to Bill Lucia, who heads EdVoice, a leading critic of LCFF’s implementation, it was “fake news.”
He points out that to reach its conclusions, the Learning Policy Institute team took the most recent academic test scores and through a process it calls “norming,” compared them to results of an entirely different system of testing that the state abandoned just about the time LCFF went into effect.
The state’s education leaders have warned that such comparisons are invalid and there’s even a state law that prohibits school officials from doing them.
The Learning Policy Institute researchers contend that they were able to reconcile the two testing systems and derive meaningful data showing academic improvement in high schools but Lucia and other critics remain unconvinced. He points to the state’s own test data on elementary school achievement showing that the vast majority of poor students are “below proficient” with little or no change over the past several years.
So the debate rages on, with the fates of millions of children and Brown’s legacy hinging on the outcome.