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Advancing Equity and Excellence: Lessons From the Golden State

Los Angeles skyline

In 2013, California passed its Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), a sweeping policy that both created a more equitable method for funding schools and overhauled the state’s accountability system. Virtually overnight, California’s highly centralized system shifted to one in which districts, in partnership with their communities and staff, have broad discretion over how they spend their resources. The state’s “test and punish” framework—put in place 3 years before the No Child Left Behind Act was passed—was replaced with one that seeks to “assess and improve” through data analysis and capacity building. While still working to realize its grand vision, California has laid a strong foundation rooted in equity and committed to a holistic approach to meeting students’ academic and social-emotional needs.  

California’s Local Control Funding Formula

Signed into law in July 2013, the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) redesigned California’s funding and accountability systems. In addition to creating an equity-focused funding formula, LCFF replaced the state’s test-based accountability system with one grounded in multiple measures of student and school success. Key elements include:

  • Funding based on student need
  • Local decision-making with significantly fewer spending requirements
  • Expanded local and state priorities
  • Stakeholder engagement in developing local plans and budgets 
  • A statewide system of support, with a focus on continuous improvement 

Here are some key lessons as the state continues down the path toward equity and excellence.

Lead with equity. LCFF represents an alternative to traditional public policies that typically offer either universal or targeted solutions. It is an example of a third—more equitable—way of policymaking, what john a. powell, Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, calls “targeted universalism,” the policy and practice of establishing universal goals and then designing differentiated (or targeted) responses to achieve them. In the case of LCFF, the targeted response includes additional funding for each English learner, student in foster care, and student from a low-income family, and concentration grants of an additional 50% for these same student groups above 55% of enrollment. In turn, districts are required to increase or improve services for the targeted students in proportion to the increase in funds they generate.

Money matters. California has steadily increased k–12 funding since LCFF was enacted. A 2018 report found that these additional investments had a significant effect on student outcomes, particularly in the districts that received the greatest increases in state per-pupil funding. For example, a $1,000 increase in district per-pupil revenue for students in grades 10–12 was associated with a 6 percentage point increase in high school graduation rates, on average. The increases in per-pupil spending also improved math and reading test scores, on average, particularly for Latino/a students and students from low-income families. But while California has invested more—and more equitably—it continues to struggle to fully fund its public education system. Researchers estimate that in the 2016–17 school year, an additional $25.6 billion in state-level spending would have been required “to ensure that all students had the opportunity to meet the state’s goals.”

Multiple measures help to identify opportunity gaps and monitor outcomes. California’s more holistic accountability system recognizes that multiple factors contribute to students’ success. It includes eight priorities and uses both traditional measures, such as test scores and graduation rates, and leading indicators, such as chronic absenteeism and suspensions and expulsions, to assess how well a school or district is addressing those priorities. A web-based tool, known as the California School Dashboard, displays both school and district performance on these measures. It also shows change so families and communities can see whether districts are making progress. The dashboard provides data for all students in the aggregate, as well as for subgroups (such as Latino/a students or students with disabilities).

Many voices contribute to major policy change. A broad cross-section of advocates, organizers, researchers, business groups, and state associations worked to build the political will and policy knowledge that were crucial to shaping and passing LCFF. Many of these same groups have also stayed involved during the hard work of district- and state-level implementation—from working to refine the dashboard and improve fiscal transparency to advancing community-designed tools to develop more equitable budgeting.

Trust is key to authentic engagement. In the early 2000s, researchers at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research studied reform in 12 Chicago elementary schools. One of their key learnings was that relational trust was essential in school improvement efforts. More than a decade later, researchers studying implementation of LCFF found that relational trust also improved districts’ ability to meaningfully engage union partners in the local decision-making process. Similarly, they noted that a lack of trust between underrepresented parents and their school districts hindered efforts to meaningfully engage those families.

Researchers studying implementation of LCFF found that relational trust improved districts’ ability to meaningfully engage union partners in the local decision-making process [and] that a lack of trust between under-represented parents and their school districts hindered efforts to meaningfully engage those families.

Teacher leadership and involvement supports implementation. As California was implementing LCFF, its schools and districts were also beginning to shift teaching and learning to align with the Common Core State Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards—a massive undertaking in a state with more than 300,000 teachers. Unlike traditional “one and done” professional development workshops, which often feel disconnected from classroom practice, many districts have turned to their local experts—their experienced teachers—to build capacity to teach to the new standards. The Instructional Leadership Corps demonstrates the power of teachers leading in the development and implementation of new curriculum. Over only 4 years, 100,000 teachers have participated in teacher-led conferences and trainings focused on implementation of the new standards, with overwhelmingly positive responses.

Opportunity gaps start early. Despite progress in closing in-state achievement gaps and raising graduation rates, California students continue to lag behind their national peers with similar family incomes, except in the most affluent districts. Researchers note, however, that these gaps are present when students enter kindergarten, “partly or largely due to gaps in school readiness.” Under Governor Gavin Newsom, the state has begun to take significant steps to expand access to and improve the quality of early childhood education, allocating nearly $1 billion in new funding in the 2019–20 budget to meet the needs of its youngest learners. This represents an important step toward addressing inequitable opportunities that contribute to ongoing achievement gaps.

Teacher turnover and shortages undermine progress. California’s historic reinvestment in schools has been concurrent with a statewide teacher shortage, often undermining the achievement of the same student groups that LCFF prioritizes with additional funding. According to a September 2018 study, this ongoing teacher shortage “threatens recent education initiatives in the state,” as districts rely on a growing number of individuals who lack full—and, at times, any—training to teach their grade, subject matter, or student population. Recognizing that teacher shortages negatively impact students’ opportunities and outcomes, the state has invested approximately $277 million over the past 4 years to recruit, prepare, develop, and retain teachers and school leaders.

California’s historic reinvestment in schools has been concurrent with a statewide teacher shortage, often undermining the achievement of the same student groups that LCFF prioritizes with additional funding.

Big change requires bigger capacity. LCFF and related reforms demand something new and different of every segment of California’s public education system—from county and state education staff who are charged with guiding and supporting struggling districts to local school boards and communities seeking new ways to partner and create a shared vision for student success. This lesson has become more apparent with each year of LCFF implementation, and the state has responded with resources and initiatives designed to build capacity and elevate best practices. Included in the 2018–19 budget, for example, was funding for two initiatives to expand capacity in two areas now included as state priorities: one focused on improving district engagement practices and a second on improving practices to support a positive school climate.

School-based investments alone cannot address structural inequities. California’s children and families navigate a myriad of structural challenges as a result of decades of disinvestment in low-income communities and communities of color. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count data, 1.6 million children live in poverty; 300,000 children lack health insurance; the parents of nearly 2.7 million children lack secure employment; and 3.8 million children live in households with a high housing-cost burden. The state took an important step in addressing the needs of children from low-income families last July when it increased funding for its Earned Income Tax Credit to $1 billion, boosting the income of low-wage workers and families and, in turn, improving opportunities for children. There is still significant work to be done, however, to meet “whole child” needs, including creating a more integrated approach among health, social services, and education efforts.

Six years ago, California adopted sweeping changes designed to better serve the 6.1 million children and young adults in its public education system. Although its size and scale put California in a league of its own, the lessons from this decade-plus effort to reimagine, enact, and implement a better system offer guidance for all those looking to make—or influence—education policy.

To learn more, see The California Way: The Golden State’s Quest to Build an Equitable and Excellent Education System.