Commentary: Brown relents a little on school accountability

For years, Gov. Jerry Brown has preached a secular version of a religious principle called “subsidiarity,” asserting that local officials should have flexibility to act without micromanagement from Sacramento.

In practice, he’s not always adhered to the principle, but has been particularly stubborn about applying it to the state’s six-million-student public education system, rejecting demands of education reformers for more state intervention on behalf of “high-needs” students.

At Brown’s urging, the Legislature overhauled state school aid laws to provide more funds to districts with large numbers of poor and/or English-learner students, aimed at closing the academic achievement gap between them and more privileged classmates.

Citing subsidiarity, he says he trusts local school officials to spend the extra money wisely and effectively.

However, civil rights and education reform groups contend that without more transparency and stricter state oversight, the extra billions of dollars in the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) could be squandered, rather than focused on the roughly 3.6 million children it’s meant to benefit.

Their fears are bolstered by reports, such as a comprehensive examination of the issue by CALmatters.org, that there’s little or no evidence that LCFF has had a positive effect.

It’s evolved into a continuous war waged in the Legislature, before the state school board and in the courtrooms.

As he introduced his final state budget last week and crowed about increasing LCFF’s school aid, Brown once again defended subsidiarity, without using the term, in response to questions about the persistent achievement gap.

“This is not going to be solved in Sacramento,” Brown replied, describing LCFF as “basically a bottoms-up kind of thing” and defending his position as “we’ve done our part.”

However, Brown also relented a bit on demands for more oversight.

“While many districts have seized the opportunities offered under the formula to better serve their students, others have been slower to make changes,” his budget says, adding, “To improve student achievement and transparency, the budget proposes requiring school districts to create a link between their local accountability plans and their budgets to show how increased funding is being spent to support English learners, students from low-income families, and youth in foster care.”

Shirley Weber, a Democratic assemblywoman from San Diego who has pushed for oversight reforms with scant success, cautiously acknowledged Brown’s slight retreat.

“A year ago, I told the governor that he needs to solve this transparency problem before he leaves office,” Weber told Jessica Calefati, the CALmatters.org reporter who revealed the LCFF shortcomings. “At least now I know I wasn’t hollering into the wilderness for 40 years like Moses or something. He was listening. I think this was his way of saying, ‘I heard you, Shirley.’”

However, many education reformers see Brown’s move as more window dressing than substance.

Bill Lucia, president of EdVoice, a member of the “Equity Coalition” seeking more LCFF accountability, criticized Brown’s proposal as inadequate because it “will track dollars to the administration and bureaucrats in school districts but not to the school level where disadvantaged students are that generated the extra income to the district.” He termed it “like regifting a wedding present” that “does not improve fiscal transparency at all.”

Brown’s proposal may be aimed at blunting a series of lawsuits alleging that by trusting local school officials to spend the money wisely, the state is, as Lucia says, “systemically writing off English learners and disadvantaged students…”

Obviously, the war will continue.

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