Let School Districts Prioritize Spending

By John H. Jackson, President & CEO of the Schott Foundation, and Robert K. Ross, President and CEO of the California Endowment

The following op-ed appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle

After years of nothing but budget cuts and bad news, California's public schools are poised for a comeback.

Our economy is improving, which has stabilized county and state revenues for the first time in nearly a decade. And in November, California voters agreed to temporarily increase taxes to support education. Though our education system remains underfunded, California leaders now find themselves facing a welcome dilemma: determining the best way to invest new education resources.

Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed a plan that is radical in its simplicity: allocate new funding where it is needed most and trust teachers, principals, parents and students to know what's best for their community. The plan, known as the local control funding formula reform, deserves the support of all Californians.

For too long, efforts to improve academic achievement in California and across the nation have used on the same basic strategy: strict standards and more testing. But in many California schools, especially in low-income areas, this approach isn't responsive to local needs. It ignores the powerful evidence linking physical and mental health to academic success. When a student can't focus in class because she's hungry, she doesn't need a new curriculum - she needs breakfast. And when her classmate can't concentrate because violence in his community has left him paralyzed with fear and distrustful of adults, standardized tests won't help - counseling will. Nearly two-thirds of children in the United States are exposed to violence, crime and abuse each year, and they need more support to stay on track academically and socially.

Instead of imposing a one-size-fits-all solution, the governor's reform trusts local leaders to know their student's greatest needs. In high pollution areas where asthma causes kids to miss school and fall behind academically, that might mean health education classes to help students and parents manage their conditions. Solutions don't have to be health-focused. In districts with large numbers of English language learners, for example, schools may choose to hire reading specialists to help students catch up and read at grade level by age 9. It's time to shift from a standards-based reform agenda to a support-based agenda - so all students will have a real opportunity to learn.

The key point is that the community will be in charge. There will be audits and oversight to ensure that taxpayer funding is used appropriately, but local leaders will bear responsibility for improving academic achievement. Working together, parents and educators will identify the obstacles that prevent students from succeeding and develop plans to overcome those challenges - whether that means more health services, improved counseling or an updated curriculum.

The local control funding plan focuses new resources in school districts facing the toughest challenges. Districts with high concentrations of children in foster care, English language learners and low-income families will all receive extra benefits. No districts will have funding cuts under the proposed plan; all schools are guaranteed a steady base budget. Extra funding only gets targeted toward the highest need communities.

Everyone knows that students in high-violence and low-income areas face special challenges, so it seems obvious that we should put more resources there. But sadly, common sense and policymaking don't always go hand-in-hand. Many legislators and savvy large school districts have historically gamed the system, working to funnel every available dollar back to their hometowns, even if those dollars could benefit more students elsewhere.

Now, some of those same leaders are fighting the governor's proposal, because they believe they can bring home more bacon under the current system. They may be correct, but that doesn't mean they are right. We should put parochial concerns behind us. The Legislature should debate the governor's plan, improve it where it can, and move local control funding reform forward. Our kids deserve no less.

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