“A lot of my students didn’t have books. A lot of my students didn’t have after-school programs,” said Geordee Mae Corpuz, who provided college-prep support at Sacramento and Bay Area schools. “Students of color didn’t feel that there was much expected out of them.”
Corpuz quit and joined Californians for Justice, a civil-rights group that teamed up with others to sue the state in 2010, arguing that unfair school funding was depriving children of constitutional rights to a “meaningful education.”
The suit ultimately failed, but it did change the atmosphere.
Enter Michael Kirst, president of the State Board of Education, who was also on the board back when Gov. Jerry Brown was governor in the late 1970s. Brown re-appointed Kirst in 2011 after being re-elected. A Stanford University professor emeritus of education and business, Kirst was an expert in Title I federal school aid for low-income students, and a former director of K-12 planning at the U.S. Department of Education. He urged reforming California’s basic funding criteria, as well as a parallel system that sent districts extra dollars that could only be spent on specific “categorical” programs.
“The local districts ended up with maybe a good school garden but no money to clean the bathroom,” Kirst said. It wasn’t hard to get superintendents statewide to support throwing out most categorical restrictions, and Brown embraced the “local control” idea.
Civil-rights groups championed Kirst’s push for “concentration” funding: Poorer kids who attend schools with affluent peers benefit from high expectations and greater opportunities available, he said. If disadvantaged kids are essentially segregated in schools, Kirst wrote in a policy paper, staff tend to expect less of kids, and kids “tend to have lower aspirations [and] more negative attitudes toward achievement.”
By 2020, Kirst believes, California’s LCFF will create “one of the most radically equalized” education financing systems in the country. Overall, the state still lags behind a few others with higher per-pupil spending, and school officials say they’d still like more to serve kids. But the surge in revenue has already helped get more money to the poorest districts. Some are currently receiving the equivalent of 90 percent of their projected full entitlements.
The new challenge is making sure the funding is efficiently targeted locally. From right to left, legislators remain concerned about accountability. They approved a bill this year imposing a litany of tests and other measurements to hold schools accountable. But Brown vetoed the bill, arguing that it was too soon to start imposing more mandates.
Kirst has urged patience, comparing the new formula in a mammoth state like California to “an oil tanker” passing beneath the Golden Gate Bridge: “You’ve got to nudge it, and you’ve got to keep it moving over time.”
Meanwhile, the State Board of Education is developing an "evaluation rubric" to be released next year to judge how districts are doing. And a new public California Collaborative for Educational Excellence is tasked with collecting and distributing “best practices” for improving education for the neediest kids.
County offices of education are responsible for approving accountability plans. In theory, if student progress isn’t clear over a period of several years, the state can withhold money. For now, though, there’s an existing group of annual tests and yardsticks schools can use to check their pace.
A list of eight priorities set by the state are mostly conventional — like student achievement. But two stand out: more parent involvement and improved “school climate.” Districts are now required to form parent committees and seek parent and student input on their spending decisions.
Surveys suggest parents remain largely unaware of the grander role that the state imagined for them — although some places, such as Oakland, have created active parent committees. The goal of a healthy “school climate” reflects growing consensus that students can't do well academically if they don't feel “connected” to school.
Districts are investing most extra funding now to replenish teaching ranks cut during recent hard times and add strategic staff, without controversy. But dissent over some investments is growing.