The California Exeptionalism: Building trust and capacity by decentralizing decisions and politics

Part II of a series that examines California’s differing approach to school reform. See the prior post — California exceptionalism: How a deep blue state took on a democratic administration and forged a new way forward in education reform — for the author’s complete view.  

By Charles Taylor Kerchner

The philosophy of California’s deliberately different approach to school reform is captured in Gov. Jerry Brown’s term “subsidiarity” — pushing decisions to the local level. The plumbing that implements subsidiarity used the state’s political capital to:

  • Radically alter the state’s education finance system, dismantling a complex system of state categorical funds, giving local districts more flexibility, and tying spending decisions to educational goals;
  • Require school districts to implement accountability plans built around multiple indicators; and
  • Revitalize grass roots democracy by giving parents, teachers, and education advocates a voice in how money is spent and how results are counted.

The leading edge of subsidiarity is found in California’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), the most radical reformation of education finance in four decades. On the surface LCFF combines traditionally progressive instincts toward steering money to the children in the most need with traditionally conservative instincts that give local authorities more discretion over programs. The new funding measure, largely designed by State School Board President Michael Kirst, is now in its second year of operation. It replaces a complex system of state categorical funds with a base grant for each student and an additional 20% for low-income students, English learners, and foster youth. High impact districts, where these target groups make up more than 55% of the enrollment, receive additional funds. Politically, local-control funding is an investment in rebuilding capacity and trust in schools and in the ability of local citizens and educators. Gov. Brown supported a temporary tax increase, which has lifted school districts from near bankruptcy. New taxes stopped four years of recession driven cutbacks that had resulted in 14,000 teacher layoffs. In addition, the state’s economic recovery raises the promise of increased base grants for schools over the next four years. But it’s the trust dimension that makes local control truly radical. While California school districts get spending flexibility, they are also required to devise an accountability system that links resources and outcomes to eight categories of educational indicators, some of which they have to devise themselves, some of which are not easily quantified. In addition to student achievement, districts will track measures of who has access to qualified teachers and material, engagement of students and parent participation. One of the early effects has been to integrate school district instructional and financial leaders into joint budget teams. Local control financing and accountability also signal trust in grassroots government and participation: an about face for education policy that for decades has been built on mandates and compliance. Enforcement of the local accountability process depends on the vigilance of local government, teacher activists, and parents. “We used to rely on the state to have regulations and auditors. Now we’re relying on community action,” said Kirst. Parent organizing around the budget process is still a work in process. A lot of it is not pretty, seamless, or without self-interest. But then neither is anything political. It is clear, though, that working-class parents can learn how to be insightful budget advocates. Shifting the locus and mode of accountability is reshaping the landscape of education reform. For the past decade, those who believe that punitive testing of teachers should be the sharp edge of education reform have cloaked themselves in the reformer mantle and created what they believe to be the sole pathway to improving schools. California is proving to be the exception.

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