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The New School Funding Formula: Fair, Focused, Flexible

The secret to better schools isn’t really very secret: Let school leaders tailor their programs to the needs of students.

Just when school districts and county offices statewide thought budget uncertainty would go away, Gov. Jerry Brown decided to rewrite basic school finance formulas.

Fix San Diego Opinion Logo Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula ditches most “categorical” funds — certain dollars that had to be spent in very specific ways — and creates one big pot of money that’s allocated based on need.

That was Brown’s vision, at least. As with everything, the devil is in the details.

Under the formula, each school district’s funding allocation depends on the demographics of the students it serves. Districts with more low-income students, English language learners or foster youth will receive more funds than those with fewer students in those categories. These funds address the fact that schools serving children with more challenges need more resources.

READ MORE: Why San Diego’s Slice of the School Funding Pie Is About to Get Bigger

Brown’s formula will require school districts to create a Local Control Accountability Plan that will set goals for student achievement and describe how the district will use its budget to achieve those goals, paying particular attention to traditionally underserved student populations. In developing these plans, districts must get input from parents and the public. That’s a very important part of the “local control” in the name.

That basic framework has been decided. But other issues are still up in the air, including the most important one: How will the formula and plan requirement be implemented?

Next week, the state Board of Education is considering drafts of the formula’s spending regulations and the template districts will use for their plans. These rules are important because they will determine school budgets, as well as how schools will be held accountable for their students’ academic success.

The drafts being considered by the state board require school districts, county offices of education and charter schools “to increase and improve” services for targeted students and provide authority for school districts to spend funds “school-wide” when significant populations of those underserved students attend a school.

Some groups have expressed concern about the formula’s flexibility, and have advocated for plan regulations that will lock districts into spending money in ways that aren’t much different from the old system. They position the state board’s choice as one of “equity vs. flexibility”: Either we tightly restrict the funds or we let districts be flexible.

That is a foolhardy argument. For years, school districts have blamed our inability to get things done on not having enough money, or on having to spend the funds they have in certain ways.

Brown’s formula removes those excuses, and the plans represent our opportunity to be transparent with our communities about what we’re trying to do for students and the progress we’re making in achieving those goals.

The new funding and accountability model allows communities to develop programs to address local needs, resources and demographics and to make the best decisions for the education and achievement of their students.

Rather than special interest groups pressuring the state board into once again decreeing that a certain percentage of funds must be spent on certain students or in certain ways, we have the opportunity to let local educators design programs that meet our students’ needs.

Put another way, instead of reverting to a top-down, Sacramento-driven model, we can let the people closest to our children make decisions about what will best help them grow.

That is why superintendents from 38 San Diego County school districts and I have asked the state board to trust in the Local Control Accountability Plan that places responsibility on local districts and communities to work together to balance resources while they address the state’s defined priorities.

From tiny Bonsall Union to sprawling San Diego Unified, we believe that flexibility is necessary for our school districts to navigate upcoming transitions in instruction and assessment that accompany the new Common Core State Standards.

The Local Control Funding Formula promotes program flexibility, wide-ranging engagement, local accountability and equity and access for all students. School districts should be able to provide additional assistance to serve English learners, socioeconomically disadvantaged and foster youth. They must be held accountable for the educational needs and academic achievement of those students.

But it is also imperative that the formula’s flexibility includes the use of resources and the ability to meet accountability requirements in ways that allow for local decision-making, a reduction in bureaucratic red tape and innovative programs that improve student achievement.

I know from personal experience that it’s possible to balance flexibility and equity. When I was superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District, we implemented “Results-Based Budgeting,” a system that stripped away cumbersome rules to let local schools decide how to spend their resources to get results for students. The outcome: skyrocketing student achievement for children of all colors, socioeconomic levels, language proficiencies and family backgrounds.

The secret ingredient isn’t really very secret: Let school leaders tailor their programs to the needs of students; have strong provisions in place to hold those leaders accountable and keep a laser-like focus on meeting the needs of children, especially those who have traditionally been underserved.

Brown, who was mayor during my time in Oakland, gets this. “We are bringing government closer to the people, to the classroom where real decisions are made and directing the money where the need and the challenge is greatest,” he said when signing the formula into law. “This is a good day for California, it’s a good day for school kids and it’s a good day for our future.”

I hope we will be able to strike the same optimistic tone after next week’s state board meeting.

Randy Ward is San Diego County superintendent of schools. Ward’s commentary has been lightly edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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