Several school districts in California, including Santa Ana Unified, will be receiving a windfall of new state and federal education funding that comes with a lot fewer strings attached.
In recent months, Gov. Jerry Brown and President Obama's Education Department have both managed to reduce state and federal rules governing how education money is allocated to, and spent by, school districts.
Gov. Brown's Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) gives school districts a simpler, more transparent funding formula on a per-pupil basis with additional money for more disadvantaged students. Santa Ana Unified, for example, with 78 percent of its students considered low-income and 53 percent of them English learners, will get $1,500 per student more than it currently does when LCFF is fully implemented.
By getting rid of a maze of school funding categories and requirements, LCFF allows school districts to choose how to spend money in ways that best meet the needs of their specific students. In exchange for this freedom, school districts must create accountability plans to demonstrably improve student performance.
In addition, earlier this month the Obama administration granted Santa Ana Unified and seven other California school districts more flexibility and autonomy to spend federal education funding. These districts got regulatory relief from all accountability sanctions under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in exchange for a promise to create accountability systems that improve student outcomes and the development of systems that incorporate measures of student progress, including test scores, into teachers' evaluations.
The Obama administration negotiated this federal waiver from NCLB directly with districts like Santa Ana because California refused to include test scores in its teacher evaluation formula.
"We're not taking this on because it's simple," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. "We're taking it on because it's the right thing to do for more than a million students."
The million dollar questions moving forward will be: Can this huge new influx of money actually lead to increases in student achievement? And will districts evaluate teacher quality based, at least partially, on how well students actually perform?
Recent events in the Los Angeles Unified School District demonstrate how difficult education reform can be. Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy had a plan to allow funding to follow students to their schools and to let principals decide how best to spend that money. But the Los Angles Unified School board overrode Deasy's plan. Instead it passed a resolution calling for $1 billion in new state funding so that LAUSD can restore the number of school employees in the district to pre-recession staffing levels - even though enrollment has been declining.
Superintendent Deasy mocked the plan, calling it a "directive to hire every human being on the West Coast."
Deasy can take solace in the fact that at least 20 school districts around the nation have embraced a Deasy-like school-level decentralization plan that allows money to follow the students to schools in exchange for more school-level accountability. In fact, two California districts, Oakland and San Francisco, have made significant improvements in their test scores since moving to student-based funding systems. And school districts like Santa Ana Unified now have a chance to follow their lead.
Santa Ana got the federal waiver because it was willing to buck the status quo and include test scores in teachers' evaluations. Unions are furious with the Obama administration for using test scores to assess teachers. And many in the education establishment also fought Gov. Brown's Local Control Funding Formula.
Now school districts like Santa Ana, which have funding flexibility from the state and federal government, need to focus on students and results. If they follow LAUSD's wrong path and focus on catering to unions and hiring larger staffs, they won't reach their goals. Santa Ana needs to give school principals the flexibility and independence to decide how to spend money at the school level. Principals are in the best position to know how to meet the needs of their students and district officials need to make sure money follows students all the way to the classroom.
Lisa Snell is director of education at Reason Foundation. This article originally ran in the Orange County Register (paid subscription required).