First, keep the lights on

Given more control over how they could spend state money, school districts not surprisingly chose survival over experimentation. And if legislators want otherwise – to encourage districts to innovate or target money on low-achieving students – then they should be more explicit about their intentions.

That was the main finding and chief recommendation of a study of districts’ flexible spending last year by the RAND Corporation and researchers with the University of California. The results are consistent with annual surveys by the Legislative Analyst’s Office the past two years.

The study – also a survey, of chief financial officers in 223 districts – diagnosed  how districts spent their share of $4.5 billion in previously earmarked spending. That encompassed 40 of 60 categorical programs and slightly less than a quarter of the $19 billion in total restricted spending that the Legislature made flexible in 2009.

Longtime advocates of unloosing control from Sacramento had speculated that districts might use deregulated  spending to “make focused investments in new instructional approaches to meet local needs” or push decision-making to the school site level. They wondered whether vocal, well-organized groups – educated parents or unions – would dominate control over spending, aggravating disparities in student spending.

But none of this happened to a great extent. (There is an interesting experiment on school-based budgeting in Los Angeles Unified and Twin Rivers Unified, which contributors to TOP-Ed have written about here and here.) Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cut categorical programs 20 percent in 2009 when instituting flexibility, and total K-12 spending has been cut 18 percent since 2007-08. As a result, districts “swept” restricted dollars into their general funds in order to keep solvent and prevent additional layoffs, the study found. Money that had been earmarked for teacher and staff training and for general school improvement was largely diverted. Adult education was cut severely in many districts that had the programs.

“Hopes of some advocates that local control would spur widespread innovation or a new focus on classroom improvements simply proved unrealistic,” the study’s co-author, Bruce Fuller, a co-director of the Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), said in a news release.

However, the study also found that “about one-third (of districts) reported that aligning spending with ‘school improvement goals’ was a high priority, and a few reported allocating newly flexible dollars to instructional reforms.” The latter were mainly urban school districts.

Lost accountability

The study has implications moving forward. Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed shifting most categorical dollars, including the money already flexed, into a weighted student funding formula that would shift significant spending to low-income students and English learners. Brown’s proposal has run into opposition based on the distribution formula. But advocates for poor children also have called on Brown to include assurances that the extra dollars would be spent on them and that local parent and English learner school committees be given a role in overseeing the dollars. The groups, which included the Education Trust-West and Public Advocates, stated their position in a June 14 letter to Brown.

Another approach could be a block grant, in which districts have latitude to spend as they choose within parameters, such as designating money broadly for professional development. Assemblymember Julia Brownley, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, took that approach in AB 18, a variation of a weighted student formula.

RAND and the LAO had to rely on district surveys, because the state didn’t force districts to report how they spent formerly restricted dollars. The RAND-UC report recommends that the state Department of Education require this and that legislators require that flexibility be evaluated to determine which students and which programs benefited and which did not. Among the questions worth asking:

  • “What happens to programs whose funds are most often swept up, such as art and music?”
  • “How do changes in adult education funding affect communities and other institutions providing such services?”

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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