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Education Law Prof Blog: New Report Suggests California Has Improved Its School Funding, But Has Long Way to Go to Meet Student Needs

The Local Control Funding Formula Research Collaborative has released an interesting new report on how California’s relatively new school funding formula is playing out in the state from the perspective of the superintendents who live with those budgets every day.  California had one of the more problematic funding systems in the nation a decade ago.  The poor funding formula was particularly ironic given that California brought us the pathbreaking fundamental rights litigation, Serrano v. Priest, in the 1970s.  The court was the first to declare education a fundamental right in the modern era and did it while the US Supreme Court was reaching the opposite conclusion under the federal constitution. 

How could a state in which education was declared a fundamental right 40 years ago have such an ineffective school funding formula today? Some argued that the strict equity had created a race to the bottom.  Rather than ensure everyone received sufficient resources, the state appeared to just ensure that everyone received equally insufficient resources.  This spurred dissatisfaction with public schools and potentially played a role in the later desire for a robust charter school sector. Sorting out those causes is far too much for a blog post, but I offer them as background to say that California finally made a major leap forward with its new funding formula in 2013--a move that hopefully moves the state back toward its roots.

As the Research Collaborative writes in its new report:

Adopted in 2013, the [Local Control Funding Formula] provides all districts with base funding plus supplemental and concentration grants for low-income students, English learners, and foster youth. The law eliminated most categorical programs, giving local school systems resource allocation authority and requiring Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAPs) be developed with input from parents, community members, students, and educators. The policy intends to promote more equitable and coherent resource allocation decisions and to lead to improved and more equitable student outcomes.

The report takes the pulse on how well this formula has worked.  It uses superintendents’ assessments as the measuring stick.  The report includes several important findings.

94% of superintendents agree that students and districts with the most needs should receive additional resources.  In other words, they agree with the premise of the funding formula.

Unfortunately, three in four believe that the formula has also created new administrative burdens—an odd phenomenon if one of the purposes was to increase local flexibility.

38% also believe that by eliminating the old categorical funding system, the new system removes essential protections that once existed for high-need students. Yet, more than half also said that the flexibility of the new system has allowed them to make innovative changes.  And three in four say the formula has helped them match funding to local needs.

But the kicker—maybe the most important question we can ask if we are concerned about student outcomes and the resources necessary to achieve them—is whether the new formula is providing sufficient funds to districts. 78% say that inadequate base funding remains a moderate or great barrier to improving teaching and learning in their district. 57% say it is a great barrier and 21% say it is a moderate barrier.

So, in short, superintendents believe California’s funding formula has been a significant step forward from the old system, but it is still has a long way to go to ensure students have equal access to the fundamental right to education.

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Derek W. Black

Derek Black is one of the nation’s foremost experts in education law and policy.  He focuses on educational equality, school funding, the constitutional right to ...