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Open Letter: Let’s show we value equity and accountability in California schools by bringing more visibility to how every education dollar is spent

Jay Artis-Wright and Darcel Sanders | March 28, 2022

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Leaders and advocates alike had high hopes for the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) introduced in California in 2013. Both of us certainly did. Eight years later we see clearly that the implementation of a system that promised equity and accountability has fallen short in two key areas: equity and accountability.

A fundamental cause of these shortcomings is the simple fact that LCFF dollars don’t always follow intended students. More detailed information about where these funds go would allow us to appropriately monitor progress and proactively advocate for shifts in how our education system allocate resources.

We understand the spirit and intent of LCFF: we were two Black students who grew up in California’s public school system and experienced funding inequities firsthand. One of us went on to work for the Chair of the Senate Education Committee during the development of this novel funding formula and the other currently leads efforts to ensure that LCFF resources translate into quality services for low-income students, foster youth, and English learners. We’re joined now as leaders of advocacy nonprofits in a fight for more visibility into where and how LCFF dollars are actually spent.

We have a chance to make progress on this call for transparency with Senate Bill 3. If passed, county offices of education, school districts, and charter schools would be required to use a new portal to report how each LCFF dollar for high-need students is spent. Being able to track these expenditures matters, especially when we see only 55 cents of every dollar of additional funding for high-need students actually makes it to their respective schools and that, on average, 80 percent of these funds are used to cover staff salaries and benefits. Tracking dollars will also allow us to understand the actual impact of investments made over time – we can double down on those that work and change course for those that are not effective.

This insight into LCFF spending also offers families and advocates a path to hold leaders accountable to the commitments outlined in their Local Control and Accountability Plans (LCAP). In the regions our organizations serve we often hear from parent leaders that the community engagement required by law feels like an afterthought; but we also hear that more detailed and accessible financial data would greatly improve the decision-making process and overall accountability.

To be clear, SB 3 does not change how funds reach individual sites and we recognize the weight of an ask for additional reporting in a time of staffing shortages and limited capacity, but it is a critical step in being able to tackle the inequities of where and how these funds are allocated in the future.

It’s also true that if LCFF is going to live up to its intended equity value and provide for students with the greatest need, then we must change the fact that Black students are invisible under the current funding formula. As it’s written, the law is silent on supporting Black students who do not currently fall under the low-income, foster youth, or English learner designation. A recent report exploring ways LCFF can be refined to improve opportunity and outcomes for California’s students shared that there are “indeed student groups—including Black students or other racial groups in some communities—who merit additional investment but have been largely ignored by LCFF.”

Ignored. It’s this lived truth that compelled a dedicated group of Bay Area parents and community members to declare “an educational state of emergency” in 2020 and demand better education for Black youth in West Contra Costa Unified. They demanded the dollars owed to Black students based on funding calculations actually be spent on targeted supports and interventions for Black students, and in the end secured over $7 million in dedicated annual funds. We saw a similar action through a recent resolution passed in Los Angeles Unified where advocates called for investments in Black educator and leadership preparation and retention strategies and improved outcomes for Black students.

These efforts, ultimately, are fights to be seen.

Time and again we hear that our budgets are a reflection of our values. Where and how we choose to invest the resources we have is a statement about where we believe impact is possible. Tracking where LCFF dollars go and continuing to call attention to where they don’t are steps we all can and must take to stop cycles of inequity and truly provide all students with the education they deserve.

Jay Artis-Wright is the executive director of Parent Revolution. She previously served as Senior Vice President of Policy for the California Charter Schools Association and was the founding member of the Freedom Coalition of Charter Schools, an organization led by leaders of color dedicated to supporting the growth and sustainability of public charter schools.

Darcel Sanders is the CEO of GO Public Schools, a nonprofit organization that builds and supports local coalitions to expand access to quality education in California’s most historically underserved communities. She previously served as Legislative Director for State Senator Carol Liu and earlier worked as a middle school teacher in Oakland.

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