The California Way: The Golden State’s Quest to Build an Equitable and Excellent Education System
In 2013, California adopted its Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), which has shifted billions of dollars to districts serving high-need students and provided all districts with broad flexibility to develop—in partnership with parents, students, and staff—spending plans aligned to local priorities and needs. These structural reforms coincided with the state’s implementation of the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards, implementation of the Smarter Balanced Assessment System, and development of new educator preparation and licensure standards to support the more rigorous academic goals.
In what has come to be known as the “California Way,” the state defined a new era in its educational history. The California Way differs dramatically from both the state’s prior approach and that initiated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. It replaced a “test and punish” philosophy— focused on driving change in a highly inequitable system through sanctions for schools, educators, and students—with one that seeks to “assess and improve” through data analysis and capacity building. The new approach also focuses on developing 21st-century skills of critical thinking and problem solving, more positive supports for students, and reduction of exclusionary discipline practices. Educator preparation standards have been updated to provide new teachers and principals with the skills needed to advance student learning in supportive and productive ways.
This report analyzes the decade-plus efforts of a cross section of individuals, organizations, and interests that contributed to passage of the LCFF and concurrent reforms and the implications of these efforts on implementation and outcomes. We then draw on major research studies, reports, and original interviews to provide an analysis of changes and improvements to date across key areas: equity-focused shifts in funding and district practices; investments in strategies and structures to support the instructional shifts required to transform learning; efforts to improve school climate and culture; and district practices to support the engagement of students, families, and communities in budget and planning processes.
While it is impossible to directly link particular outcome changes to specific policy shifts or decisions, the general trends suggest progress accomplished and areas of need. Whereas California once ranked in the bottom five states on every achievement measure on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, it has improved in both absolute and relative terms. California has shown some of the greatest gains of any state in the last few years, and now typically ranks between 25th and 35th among the states. While the state is no longer at the bottom, there is still ample room for improvement overall and in closing the still-large gaps in performance between students of color and White students.
High school graduation rates, now at 83%, have also increased in California since 2010, when they were 75%. All groups have improved substantially, although as with test scores, gaps remain. In 2018, African American students graduated within 4 years at rates of 73% and Hispanic American/ Latino students at rates of 81%, as compared to 86% for White students and 93% for Asian and Filipino students. A study of the effects of the reforms found that in districts that received the most substantial funding, an increase of $1,000 in LCFF funding was associated with a 6 percentage point increase in graduation rates as well as improvements in mathematics and reading achievement.
Similarly, a review of data on exclusionary discipline practices and school climate paints a picture of steady—and in some cases significant—improvement, although there is variation across the state. Suspension rates decreased by more than one third between 2012 and 2017 and are now below the national average. Researchers found that these declines have held true for all racial and socioeconomic groups and school levels, narrowing disciplinary gaps among racial and ethnic groups across the state.
Meanwhile, schools have become safer. According to national data, school-based firearm incidents in the state, which were well above the national average from 2009 to 2010, were far below the national average by 2015–16, declining by more than 50% in the 7-year period. Significant decreases also occurred in rates of school-based fights, bullying incidents, and classroom disruptions over that period of time. Despite positive trends, however, students of color continue to be disproportionately impacted by exclusionary practices.
While considerable progress has been made, there is much more work to do. Research suggests that major tasks remain in at least three areas associated with funding, capacity-building, and staffing:
1. Funding: Support the LCFF fundamentals and strategic educational investments.
- Continue to refine current policies and deepen their implementation.
- Develop revenue streams and spending plans that will move the state toward adequacy as well as equity in funding.
- Invest strategically in a well-functioning system of early childhood care and learning.
- Refine and strengthen the accountability system.
- Consider how the measurement of school climate and parent involvement can best inform educators and stakeholders and strengthen the ability of schools and districts to create safe, inclusive, and welcoming school environments by supporting their capacity to administer, analyze, and address concerns identified in school surveys.
- Address ongoing concerns about lack of transparency in local budgeting and planning processes.
2. Capacity building: Strengthen the capacity of districts, schools, and educators to address the state’s priority areas.
- Build on existing assets to create a more comprehensive professional learning infrastructure.
- Develop and support networks for professional learning.
- Learn from exemplars.
- Build the capacity of teachers and school and district leaders to authentically engage families.
3. Staffing: Strengthen the educator workforce.
- Build a strong, stable, and diverse teacher workforce.
- Invest in school and district leaders.
With the passage of the LCFF and related reforms, California entered a new era in its decades-long quest for equity and excellence. With substantial new investments, coupled with a laser-like focus on students with the greatest need, the state has made important strides in creating the framework needed to provide every student with an excellent education. Continued progress will depend on deepening these strategies and investments, as well as a focused effort to build the capacity of everyone in the system—teachers, school and district leaders, county and state officials, and families and communities—to capitalize on the new resources, flexibility, continuous improvement commitments, and community-based decision making that are the cornerstones of the California Way.
The California Way: The Golden State’s Quest to Build an Equitable and Excellent Education System by Roberta C. Furger, Laura E. Hernández, and Linda Darling-Hammond is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
We are grateful to The S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation for its funding of this report. Funding for this area of LPI’s work is also provided by the Stuart Foundation. Core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute is provided by the Sandler Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Ford Foundation.