THE LCFF EFFECT: SPENDING PATTERNS AND CONCEPTS OF EQUITY
This is Part II of a series of blogs on resource allocation in the LCFF era.
In Part I of this series, I left off with the notion that money well spent in the LCFF era will be invested strategically, with a focus on early childhood programs, regarded as the cornerstone of any educational system, in addition to a comprehensive professional learning infrastructure that supports professional learning and builds a strong, stable, and diverse teacher and leader workforce, and a continuous school improvement framework that guides decision-makers through a cyclical process of analyzing student achievement, school and district processes, demographic, and perception data, and annually modifying plans (LCAP, site plans, and strategic plans) accordingly.
An educational budget is the translation of educational needs into a financial plan. Strategic school/district leadership focuses on long-range planning.
Allocating resources to the school’s and district’s most important priorities in ways that are most likely (evidenced-based) to improve student performance is the primary objective of educational budgeting. There are other evidence-based resource allocation principles that would also be included on any list of best spending practices, in addition to aligning spending with strategic priorities. They include establishing budgeting processes and procedures to ensure effective and efficient spending, encouraging cost savings through strategic purchasing and by reducing operating inefficiencies, increasing productivity by investing in technology, and reallocating resources to optimize student learning when current practices are not producing improved student outcomes.
While a district that “does things right” might be a model of efficiency in allocating resources, unless students are learning, that same district might not be “doing the right things” related to the effective allocation of resources.
Why might a district not do the right things, specifically related to allocating resources in the LCFF era? There is no single answer, but numerous theories. One draws upon sensemaking theory and how decision-makers conceive equity, which impacts resource allocation practices. In other words, an organization’s spending patterns are influenced by their equity stance (much as my own conceptions of equity influence my positionality related to my analysis of this topic). My resource allocation course at CSUF has served as a platform to analyze and discuss a variety of different district’s spending patterns through both a social justice lens and a sensemaking lens. My personal experiences working in school districts with both high numbers of unduplicated students and those without them also informs me.
I’ve concluded that the LCFF-effect has a counter-intuitive impact on districts’ spending patterns, conceived differently depending on the district’s population and demographics.
Districts with high levels of LCFF supplemental and concentration grant funding are more likely to conceive equity as equal resources for all students (and spend accordingly as evidenced by differentiated staffing, for example) compared to districts with low levels of LCFF supplemental and concentration grant funding, which tend to conceive equity as allocating additional resources based on needs. In my own experiences leading three different school districts serving 80% or more of students receiving high levels of equity funding (LCFF and Title I), as well as my experiences working as a principal in two districts not receiving equity funding despite serving a significant number of students identified as low income, foster, or English language learners, equity has been realized by an alternative form of the Robin Hood effect (a reverse-equity model).
If, for example, a significant percentage of a district’s students meet the LCFF supplemental and concentration grant criteria, that district is more likely to conceive equity as equal resources for all students, and subsequently provide equalization and targeted spending where necessary, regardless of whether or not the students served are members of the unduplicated count of students identified by the calculus inherent in the LCFF.
On the other hand, a district with an opposite profile, is more likely to conceive equity as allocating greater resources for greater needs. In both cases, a district’s organizational identity reflects the concept of equity as greater resources for greater needs. However, in the case of a district with high levels of students meeting LCFF equity-funding thresholds, their spending patterns suggests a duality in beliefs and subsequently resource allocation practices that deviate from the spirit and letter of LCFF legislation. For example, numerous districts, including Long Beach Unified School District, with 70% of its enrollment meeting the LCFF threshold for supplemental and concentration grants, and Los Angeles Unified, with an unduplicated count of 85%, had formal complaints filed against them for allocating supplemental and concentration grant resources that benefited all students. It should be clear that such practices are the result of inadequate school funding and the desire of educators to support all students, even if they fall somewhere below equity-funding thresholds.
Crucial to the success of any resource allocation strategy is a carefully crafted plan and organizational coherency regarding its definition and understanding of equity. Equity should be a primary initiative of any school district and a centerpiece of its strategy. Eliminating the achievement gap requires eliminating the opportunity gap by providing equitable funding and allocating it strategically, deliberately, and appropriately.
Funding for schools should be rooted in two principles of democracy, fairness and inclusion. Those principles, germane to our identity as Americans, have been choked out of our education system by the deep, girdling roots of discrimination. The result of the sins of our past. But the future of education doesn’t have to be shaped by the ghosts of Plessey v. Ferguson.
The largely static achievement gaps (e.g. race, ethnicity, and income) that stubbornly persist can easily be an artifact of the past if we can dig deep and find the empathy to do the right thing. Education can elevate the principles of fairness and inclusion to new heights. It’s evident in the conception of equity and how it shapes resource allocation. We tend to do the right thing when given the opportunity. We simply need more opportunity.