Dollars and Doers: Power in Public Education

Dollars and Doers: Power in Public Education

Originally published in the GGMG Magazine – April 2015

Public education funding and governance in California have long been nonsensical to experts and virtually incomprehensible to the rest of us. In a flurry of recent legislative and administrative action, policymakers set out to reform what the Stanford Center for Education Policy and Analysis described as the “remarkably crazy quilt of interacting authorities . . . not aligned for purpose of accountability or action.” Though the import of new laws regarding public school funding and control is difficult to comprehend standing alone, a little historical perspective makes the basics surprisingly clear and fascinating. With an understanding of these essentials of public school governance, parents, educators, local business owners, philanthropists, and taxpayers can effectively engage with the system.

California’s pendulum swing

The story of California public schools’ funding is best envisioned as a swinging pendulum. Prior to the 1970s, the school board in a given town set the rate at which property taxes were levied, and that revenue directly funded local schools. As a result, education policy developed in a decentralized manner as each school board made its own policy decisions.

In the 1971 Serrano v. Priest decision, the California Supreme Court ruled this funding system unconstitutional after finding that it “invidiously discriminates against the poor because it makes the quality of a child’s education a function of the wealth of his parents and neighbors.” The Court imposed revenue limits in an attempt to redistribute wealth across the state, yet school boards still collected funds locally and spent anything under the limit without interference. Later that decade, however, California voters passed Proposition 13, which prohibited school boards from levying taxes and capped property taxes at one percent of assessed value. As a result, each year between when a home is purchased and when it is sold, property taxes go down in real value (since the market value of the home outpaces the assessed value). This dramatically-lowered ceiling on both tax rate and taxable value dried up the historic well of education funding.

As the state struggled to find money to fill the gap, the quality of schools declined. In response, Propositions 98 and 111 required that a larger portion of the general budget be allocated to education. After Prop 98, approximately 60 percent of K-12 education funding came from the state, 30 percent from local sources largely funneled through the state, and 10 percent from federal programs. As a result of Serrano and Props 13, 98, and 111, the locus of education funding moved from local school boards to the state level.

Control followed. The California State Legislature, sometimes acting upon gubernatorial proposal, has always passed laws relating to schooling, codified as the Education Code. For decades following Serrano and the propositions, however, state legislators and overlapping administrative agencies also set policy by tying funds to particular programs. School districts got much of their budget via little bundles of money, each set aside for a specific function. This type of categorical funding, which operated very similarly to the strings-attached federal grant money received by districts, kept most policy-making in Sacramento.

Over the last few years, many changes have been made.

The California Department of Education (CDE) and its head, the constitutionally-established and elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI), now oversee the state’s public school system in a more streamlined manner as the parallel Secretary of Education and Office of Education have been eliminated. Many of the CDE’s policy recommendations and proposed regulations must be approved by a separate constitutionally-established body, the 11-member, largely Governor-appointed State Board of Education (SBE). The SBE commands quite a bit of authority in this role. The SPI serves as the SBE’s Secretary and Executive Officer, but he does not get a vote. While the relationship is rather confusing, the SBE, SPI, and CDE largely work in concert. For example, the SBE is the authority responsible for approving standards (like the Common Core) and adopting curriculum frameworks, instructional materials, and assessments recommended by the SPI after research and development by the CDE.

In 2013, legislation referred to as the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) also altered the way these agencies interact with local players. Rather than distributing funds earmarked for a proliferation of small policy goals, legislators now give school districts the bulk of their funds based on average daily attendance. From this base grant of per-pupil funding, additional funds are distributed in order to support a small handful of issues that are a priority for the legislature, such as small class size at the K-3 level and providing support for targeted disadvantaged students (like English learners, those eligible to receive a free or reduced-price meal, and foster youth).

Rather than completing separate paperwork for many little grants, school districts engage in one big, self-directed exercise under LCFF. They must hold public meetings in order to adopt a Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP), setting goals in eight areas and a related budget. County Offices of Education (COEs) play a more robust role as they can make recommendations regarding school districts’ LCAPs and have ultimate approval authority. School districts must then annually report to the COEs the actions and expenditures made to achieve the goals, progress toward the goals, and an updated set of goals.

This process shifts significant budgetary decision-making authority back to the local level. As SFUSD School Board of Education Vice President Matt Haney explains, “Education is less of a state-determined enterprise now. We have a lot more discretion and flexibility in how we use our LCFF dollars.” Yet Sacramento legislators still control changes to the Education Code, and the CDE and SBE continue to enforce mandates and issue regulations. Requirements as seemingly trivial as the number of minutes spent in PE class remain state-mandated.

It is unclear how involved the state will be, especially with respect to politically hot issues such as suspension and expulsion policy. Erin Gabel, former advisor to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, explains, “The ink is barely dry. The Legislature just handed over the keys to the car. They have yet to see how they feel about what they’ve authorized. Local school districts have yet to obtain any student data to prove that they can manage the responsibility. They may have the keys to the car, but it’s still unclear how much driving they’ll actually get to do.”

In other words, the extent to which control will follow the funding pendulum remains to be seen.

San Francisco Unified School District

The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is the seventh largest district in California, and it educates approximately 56,000 students each year. Employees in the Central Office work to support SFUSD’s 103 schools. They report via various intermediary directors, assistants, and officers to the SFUSD Superintendent who in turn answers to the SFUSD Board of Education. The San Francisco COE is completely coterminous with and not independent from SFUSD. (Since SFUSD cannot support and monitor itself, the district submits its LCAP directly to the CDE.)

After completing the LCAP process, SFUSD takes the funds received from Sacramento via the LCFF and uses its own funding formula to distribute the money between schools. Since 2002, SFUSD has used the Weighted Student Formula (WSF) that, like the LCFF, largely employs a per-pupil base rate (that changes by grade level) with funds added if the student falls into one of the “targeted disadvantaged students” categories. Additional funding is then provided to schools with populations of these students exceeding 55 percent in the form of concentration grants. Thus, schools with a higher proportion of disadvantaged students receive more per-capita funding. Whether this process will change in the wake of LCFF is unclear.

Who determines how schools spend their allotted portions? Every two years, each school holds an election for its School Site Council (SSC). SSCs vary in the number of participants, but different groups must be represented according to fixed proportions: half are parents (or students, in the case of secondary schools) and community members and half are school staff members; the Principal is always a member of the SSC. Tiffany Kendall Obayashi, Assistant Principal of Rooftop School, assures that “even though our SSCs consist of elected members, SSC meetings are always open to the school community.”

SSCs—monitored by the SFUSD Central Office—develop an academic plan (quite similar in structure to the LCAP) and budget in order to determine how best to meet SFUSD’s goals. “Each year the SSC holds two formal Community Meetings to gather input from families regarding their children’s education,” says Obayashi, “and it is vital that community members have their voices heard during this annual planning process.” The Principal is charged with implementing the resulting plan.

Over the past decade, allocations via the WSF have left many schools with insufficient funding. In some schools, parent organizations—known as Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) when affiliated with that national organization and as Parent Teacher Organizations (PTOs) when not—raise funds to decrease the impact of the shortfall. Jeremy Adam Smith of the San Francisco Public Press reports that in 2002, elementary school PTAs/PTOs “brought in a total of just $592,000. But through 2011, their combined budgets had ballooned to $5.32 million, an increase of about 800 percent.”

That doesn’t mean all students benefit from the extra money. Smith explains that the “Grattan PTA has budgeted . . . almost $1,000 per pupil. At Junipero Serra, where most students come from poor and immigrant families, the PTA raises approximately $25 per pupil.” Inequality in fundraising likely translates to a parental power imbalance as well. Because fundraising doesn’t just add to the pot of money available to the SSC in educating students but rather is spent at the direction of the PTA/PTO, it stands to reason that these groups wield more power to shape the school when they raise more funds.

Opportunities for influence

The resulting picture is three tiers of control at the state, local, and school level with largely parallel structure. Teachers (individually and via the unions), the federal government, non-profits, philanthropic organizations, businesses, and other special interests interact with each layer of governance. Parents can, too.

The answer to the question “Who holds the power to help?” differs based on the desired impact level. Haney explains: “If your problem is about policy or about how resources are distributed in a broad way, take your concerns to the School Board. If it’s about how a district policy is being implemented, go to your SSC and Principal. Fundraising for supplementation is a matter for the PTA. Take music, for example. If you think the district doesn’t prioritize music education as a general matter, talk to the Board. If you’ve got a complaint about the way the specific music class runs, go to your Principal. To fundraise for a part-time music teacher, try the PTA. There’s a range of opportunity for parents to make an impact based on the way in which they want the issue addressed. Depending on your problem, you may want to bring it to the attention of multiple levels at the same time.” And don’t forget the chance to make a statewide impact. Don’t like the Common Core? Head to Sacramento to the next SBE public meeting. Want vaccination to be mandatory for public school attendance? Lobby the legislature.

With a basic understanding of the various state, local, and school-level actors and their roles, all San Francisco stakeholders can take advantage of the increased transparency and broader participation wrought by recent reforms to become involved with the public schools in a meaningful way.

5 thoughts on “Dollars and Doers: Power in Public Education

  1. Two tidbits that didn’t make it through the editing process: (1) Why might a parent group choose to be a “booster club” or other PTO rather than a PTA? The national organization charges dues and promulgates rules and regulations. (2) Inequality in parent fundraising just makes funding equitable since the district gives schools with little fundraising (generally the same ones with concentrations of targeted disadvantaged students) more funding, right? Wrong! In schools with these students it costs more to educate the kids per capita. As a result equal funding is not equitable funding. They need more money to do the same thing and end up with about the same amount of funding. Another way to look at it: PTA money at Vivienne’s school goes to funding the garden, the sensory motor room, and arts offerings whereas extra state dollars at Junipero Serra go to pay for basic educational services.


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