Why the Governor’s “Local Control Funding Formula” Matters
Governor Jerry Brown is calling for a “local control funding formula” to change how we fund our schools. Schools currently receive funding through a “base grant” plus additional funding from “categorical” programs, which originally served a particular “category” of student. The rationale is that students learning English, for example, need extra support and thus cost more to educate, so districts serving them should get additional resources. There are two problems with this approach. First, the number of programs has multiplied, and today there are separate funding streams for school buses, lunches, pregnant teenagers, small schools … the list goes on and each program has rigid requirements. The result is like paying workers not with dollars but with gift cards for the various stores in which they shop. You might be able to provide for your family this way, but it would be frustrating, time-consuming and inefficient. That’s how local education leaders feel about the current funding system.
Governor Brown is proposing to simplify this. Districts serving students that cost more would still get more – how much more is still under debate – but the number of “categories” of funding would be streamlined and the rules reduced. This would allow resources to be used more efficiently: no more dollars left on the Macy’s card when the family needs groceries. This argument alone ought to convince every taxpayer. But there’s more to like here than that.
The second problem is the undermining of accountability. California schools today are accountable to state and federal agencies. This isn’t completely wrong, but schools should also be accountable to parents and communities. This dimension of accountability is undercut by regulations that make it hard for schools to be responsive to their customers. And parents want different things than do policymakers. Take the “achievement gap,” for example. The gap, which matters to policymakers, is about groups of students. But parents rarely think about groups, they think about their own child. Both perspectives matter, but overregulation makes keeping both perspectives on the table difficult. And if schools are ever to receive the funding our children deserve, we must rebuild the trust between schools and the communities they serve. Local control of funding decisions is an essential first step.
Of course, this won’t be a perfect solution. Some of the over-regulation of public education originates in Washington, not Sacramento. Other requirements come from court rulings or voter initiatives. And passing even a partial solution won’t be easy. Every categorical program is backed by someone who believes in it and doesn’t trust that locals will keep their program when the requirements go away. But that’s the point: local control. Resources are scarce and local decision makers should be the ones making the tough choices about what their children need.
By making this proposal, Governor Brown has taken a major step toward redefining education reform. Too often today this phrase seems to mean firing a few teachers and opening another charter school, strategies that will never touch most students. Taking on the reform of education finance, and through it re-connecting families and communities with the schools that educate their children, this is education reform worth supporting.