New school funding could transform California schools, say Stanford scholars

May 08, 2014

By Clifton B. Parker

California's school districts should rethink their budget priorities upon receiving new state funding in the years ahead. When voters approved Proposition 30 in 2012, they created an unprecedented opportunity to reinvent the state's troubled K-12 school system, according to a new report from Stanford's Policy Analysis for California Education.

When California school districts decide how to spend new funding now coming their way, they need to think strategically about their goals for 2020, according to a new Stanford report.

After years of painful budget cuts, new revenues will start flowing to California school districts in 2014, thanks to voters' approval of Proposition 30 in 2012. The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) will give almost all districts increases over the next several years – many will get 50 to 75 percent more state revenue per pupil.

How that money is spent is the key issue, based on research from Stanford's Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE).

"Being strategic rather than reactive in the implementation of LCFF is the key to long-term improvements in the performance of California schools and students," researchers wrote in a recently published report, which identifies research-based ideas for using LCFF resources. The document is titled, "2020 Vision: Rethinking Budget Priorities Under the LCFF." David Plank, executive director of PACE, said the new funding formula will provide extra money for disadvantaged students and school districts while giving school districts increased control over the way money is spent. "This is very different from the way California has funded schools in the past," he said.

Plank said the biggest danger is that districts will use the new revenue to restore recent budget cuts, or to fund miscellaneous initiatives, rather than to support long-term strategies for improvement.

"Instead of focusing on 2007 and what we've lost, we should be focusing on 2020 and what we can achieve," he said.

Flexibility with resources

Plank said the new funding formula consists of two key elements. "The first is the flexibility that it gives local educators to innovate and experiment in their use of resources," he said.

The second is the responsibility that it assigns to schools and school districts to consult with parents and the broader community as they make decisions about the use of funds, Plank added.

"Together these two elements should make it possible for local leaders to invest resources and develop programs that address the specific needs of their students and communities," he said.

The report suggests three principles that should guide districts' strategies:

  • Direct resources to the schools and students who need them the most.
  • Give local educators greater flexibility to experiment and innovate.
  • Design and implement policies in ways that support learning about what works and what does not.
  • In addition, the document identifies four areas where the investment of new resources is most likely to make a difference for students:

More time for teaching and learning

  • Additional counselors, librarians, instructional aides and administrators
  • Community outreach and engagement
  • Data, evaluation and new technology

As Plank said, "Districts can bring on additional people to provide additional support for students, teachers and principals, or they can assign current staff to new roles."

For example, master teachers or instructional coaches can help teachers to improve their teaching, and assistant principals can give principals the time they need to lead their schools, he said.

"Counselors and librarians can provide critically important support for struggling students. Investing in these new roles can have a big impact on the performance of schools," said Plank.

The report also emphasizes the importance of data collection to track the implementation and impact of the new funds. School districts need to embrace the kind of technology that measures student performance across schools and programs.

"They can also develop strategies to ensure that information is shared with those who can make the best use of it," the PACE authors wrote. The new state funding will be fully realized in 2020, as the flow of money will increase incrementally over time. This can help "leverage the kinds of long-term institutional changes that are otherwise difficult to bring about in local education systems," according to the report.

As Plank puts it, more of the status quo is not a winning strategy for California's educational system.

The report noted that the new funding will coincide with California's adoption of the Common Core State Standards, a nationwide education initiative that details what K-12 students should know in English language arts and mathematics at the end of each grade. This convergence promises "better teaching and deeper learning" for all California students.

In fact, leveraging the resources and flexibility that the new California funding provides to support the Common Core rollout is the "key to improving teaching and learning in classrooms throughout the state," the researchers wrote.

Founded in 1983, Policy Analysis for California Education is an independent, non-partisan research center based at Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Southern California. PACE seeks to define and sustain a long-term strategy for comprehensive policy reform and continuous improvement in performance at all levels of California's education system.