Education funds raise concerns in Fresno-Clovis area

The Fresno BeeJanuary 11, 2014 

After months of waiting for directions from the state, California school districts soon will get guidance on how to use millions of new state dollars for low-income kids and English learners. But concerned civil rights groups say that while the state's proposed rules are well-intentioned, they may be too little, too late.

The regulations set to be adopted at the state Board of Education meeting this week are tied to the state's education finance overhaul — the Local Control Funding Formula — that was signed into law last July.

What's changed? Districts with high numbers of at-risk kids now get more money and flexibility, provided they follow new state rules. The funds are intended to remedy inequalities between high-achieving districts and those that serve lots of high-risk kids, while giving districts more discretion over their budgets.

Most importantly for districts, they now will have a uniform way to calculate how many extra dollars they will get from the state. For example, Fresno Unified will get an extra $28 million and Clovis Unified will get about $10.5 million more this school year.

But the regulations set limits on how the funds can be used and advise districts on how to engage their community in the budget-making process.

That last part — getting input from community members such as parents and teachers — is what gets to the heart of the "local" part of the law, said Brooks Allen, deputy policy director of the California State Board of Education.

"It is such a seismic shift in how schools approach budgeting and planning," Allen said. "The entire focus of this is to ensure there are these local conversations with stakeholders to come up with goals."

But education advocacy groups that include Public Advocates and Californians for Justice say they're worried the state's delay in releasing rules for the new funds has allowed districts to earmark their dollars without local input.

Some also say the proposed regulations don't put enough teeth in the law to ensure administrators take community advice into account in future years.

"I will bet you there's not one district in the state that won't be able to say, 'We've invited everyone to meetings? Check.' But, how is that different than what they already do?" said Liz Guillen, director of legislative and community affairs at the nonprofit law group Public Advocates.

"I'm concerned there will be some districts that feel like it's so much change, or will rely on the same individual parents or stakeholders, that they won't reach out in the way this was contemplated."

Gov. Jerry Brown signed the new education finance formula into law six months ago. But state officials, districts and civil rights groups have continued to quarrel over how to spend the dollars.

In November, dozens of concerned groups rebuffed an early set of draft rules they said gave districts too much leeway to steer the money away from the law's focus.

State officials say revisions to the regulations help tighten the formula's language and encourage districts to get input from teachers, parents and students.

For example, Allen said, districts are required to submit a plan showing they've reached out to parents and other groups and used their input when making decisions.

He said the revisions directly address some of the most vocal concerns from both sides.

"Where the regulations have landed reflects the right balance between transparency and flexibility," he said.

Local district leaders say they're mostly satisfied with the changes.

"The flexibility that they're continuing to allow us to have, it's one of the things the governor wanted," said Steve Ward, legislative analyst for Clovis Unified School District. "We're really happy and pleased that there's ways you can use dollars on a district-wide and a school-wide basis."

Ward is referring to a section of the rules that says districts in which more than 55% of students are low-income, foster youths or English learners can use their extra cash to fund district-wide projects. Districts with fewer at-risk kids — including Clovis Unified, where 42% fall into that category — can do district-wide projects, so long as officials prove their plan is the best way to help at-risk students boost academic achievement.

Fresno Unified's chief financial officer Ruth Quinto said the revisions allow the district to stay the course on a set of plans it already has prepared.

She also is pleased, she said, that the regulations don't add too many restrictions on districts.

But not everyone supports the revised rules: Fresno teachers union officials, some state groups and local civil rights advocates say they're not convinced the changes will be enough.

Fresno district officials already have signaled how they will spend the money. The district pitched a plan back in October to use the funds to lengthen the school day by 30 minutes at some schools, reduce class sizes in certain grades, add more teacher development days and hire more early education staff.

Quinto said the proposal, which still needs a green light from the teachers union, was drafted after gathering feedback from the community at a school board workshop in September. The district has several other community meetings planned over the next two months.

The district also has an online survey for parents. And administrators have talked with principals and community task forces, Quinto said.

For instance, graduation task force member Kendra Rogers, executive director of First 5 Fresno County, said Fresno Unified's plan to lengthen the school day was lifted straight from the task force's recommendations.

And Quinto said there still is room for tweaks: for example, the district still needs to iron out part of the plan that gives teachers more pay if they do professional development.

But she dismissed the idea of using community input to direct her budget planning.

"Am I just going to wait for what the parents say and direct resources? No," she said. "We will take that input, and we will make sure we are influenced by the input, but it is not driving decisions."

Fresno teachers union president Eva Ruiz, said the proposed regulations don't put enough pressure on districts to follow through with recommendations from the community.


The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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