Audit backs school finance critics

A half-decade ago, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature overhauled California’s school finance system with the avowed goal of closing the “achievement gap” separating poor and English learner students from their more privileged classmates.

School districts with large numbers of “at-risk” students would be given billions of extra dollars to improve their educations. From the onset, however, the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) drew criticism from education reform and civil rights groups.

While they applauded the concept, they complained that LCFF would shovel more money into local school coffers without tracking how it was being spent or whether it was closing the gap.

Brown, backed by the state’s education establishment, rejected the complaints. He cited the religious principle of “subsidiarity” in contending that local school officials could be trusted to spend the money wisely.

It soon became evident, however, that much of the extra money was being siphoned into general purposes, especially for the salary increases that school unions were demanding, leading to formal complaints and lawsuits. It’s also evident that the achievement gap is still stubbornly wide.

This week, the criticism of LCFF’s implementation was substantiated in a landmark report by State Auditor Elaine Howle. It’s highly critical of the state Department of Education for sloppy administration and scant oversight, of districts’ often indecipherable and inaccurate reports, and of county offices of education for not fulfilling their role as LCFF monitors.

Howle’s staff delved into how three large school districts, San Diego Unified, Oakland Unified and Clovis Unified, implemented LCFF on the assumption that what was learned about them would be true statewide.

“We are particularly concerned that the state does not explicitly require districts to spend their supplemental and concentration funds on the intended student groups or to track their spending of those funds,” Howle’s report declared. “Without a means of tracking how districts use (LCFF) funds, state and local policymakers and other local stakeholders lack adequate information to assess the impact of those funds on the outcomes of intended student groups.”

School districts write Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs) that are supposed to reveal how the additional money is to be spent. “However,” auditors found, “all three districts we reviewed produced 2018–19 LCAPs that are hundreds of pages long (and) LCAPs of these lengths cannot tell a simple, brief, and coherent story of each district’s goals; rather, their length and complexity reduces readability and transparency.”

Furthermore, the auditors noted, “districts sometimes used jargon that made it difficult to understand how they planned to spend their supplemental and concentration funds. San Diego Unified provided one particularly difficult description: ‘Integrated Multi‑Tiered Systems of Support (I‑MTSS) will be implemented in Grades TK–12 through the Academics and Agency (A²) model by ensuring the essential elements and solution seeking processes are in place at all schools.”

The report includes a laundry list of ways the state could improve the LCFF process and learn whether it’s working.

“The state now has an opportunity to take an important step toward learning more about the effectiveness of billions of dollars that it allocates for K–12 education,” the report says.

Yes, it does, but will Gov. Gavin Newsom, the state school board he appoints and state schools Supt. Tony Thurmond act or continue the head-in-the-sand attitude?

Those in the education establishment don’t want the accountability that Howle recommends. They prefer to issue opaque, jargon-laden pronouncements of good intentions while sponsoring two ballot measures that would raise billions of new tax dollars for them to spend as they see fit.

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