A case in San Bernardino opens a new avenue to compel California school districts to improve the educations of students at risk of failure.
Jerry Brown counts the awkwardly named Local Control Funding Formula as a signal achievement of his second governorship.
Enacted in 2013, LCFF overhauled California’s system of financing public education with the avowed goal of closing an academic “achievement gap” separating poor and English-learner students from their more privileged classmates. It provided additional state money to school districts with large numbers of at-risk students on the expectation that it would be spent to close the gap.
Unfortunately, however, the legislation mirrored Brown’s assumption that local officials would spend the extra money as intended — he called it “subsidiarity” — and contained little oversight. That hands-off attitude created constant tension between educators and education reform and civil rights groups concerned that without direction, the money would be diverted to other purposes.
The reformers filed complaints with state education officials against specific districts deemed to be skirting the law and occasionally sued them. However, they soon found that the state Department of Education, under former superintendent Tom Torlakson, was more a hindrance than an ally in pushing districts to focus their extra funds on the kids who needed help the most.
Torlakson, a former teacher and state assemblyman, was joined at the hip with those who resisted oversight, particularly the powerful California Teachers Association. On one occasion, he countermanded his own department and declared that the extra state aid could be used to raise teachers’ salaries. On another, his department spanked the huge Los Angeles Unified School District for misspending LCFF funds, then allowed the district to re-categorize the money to make it legal.
Tony Thurmond, Torlakson’s successor, appears to be more willing to challenge school systems that are lackadaisical about spending LCFF money.
Last year, Thurmond’s department cracked down on LA Unified, declaring that its plan for spending LCFF funds was seriously deficient. Last week, in response to a complaint from two civil rights organizations, Public Advocates and the ACLU, it found that the San Bernardino County superintendent of schools, Ted Alejandre, had failed to adequately police the LCFF spending plans of three local school districts.
Although the LCFF law carved out an oversight role for county school superintendents, they have tended to uncritically endorse the Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs) written by districts in their counties.
The San Bernardino case opens a new avenue for education reformers to challenge the adequacy of LCAPs throughout the state.
County school superintendents, most of whom are elected, occupy an odd place in the public school hierarchy. The offices were originally created in the 19th century to administer local schools, which were then organized on a county-by-county basis.
As independent school districts arose to replace county school systems, the roles of county superintendents morphed into providing some specialized education services directly and monitoring the financial health of school districts within their counties.
One example of the latter has been the years-long conflict between Sacramento County Superintendent David Gordon and the Sacramento City Unified School District over the latter’s profligate financial practices, which have left it teetering on the edge of insolvency.
The San Bernardino County case puts county superintendents on notice that they must do more than rubberstamp LCAPs. That said, while having plans that say the right things about helping poor and English-learner students improve their academic achievement is progress, actually holding districts accountable for results would be even better.
Brown’s theory about “subsidiarity” — trusting local school officials to do the right thing — may sound good on paper, but in practice it’s fallen very short of doing what’s needed for children at risk of educational failure.