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June 2, 2014
Viewpoints: Parents need to see how money is being spent

RP_MATH_TEACHER_Elementary_School.JPG(June 2 - By Jonathan Kaplan, Special to The Bee)

California's new system of K-12 school funding is based on a central promise - targeting additional resources to the students who need them most.

But to keep that promise, Gov. Jerry Brown and state legislators must act now to help ensure that the dollars provided for disadvantaged students actually go to support them. Otherwise policymakers will have missed a major opportunity to move our state closer to providing all students with pathways to success.

When state policymakers last year replaced California's overly complex way of funding public schools with the new Local Control Funding Formula, they took a major step forward - in two key respects.

Most importantly, the new formula addresses longstanding inequities by providing additional dollars to support disadvantaged students - specifically English learners, foster youth and students from low-income families. At the same time, the new formula gives local school districts considerable authority over how to use these dollars to improve educational outcomes for these students.

By targeting additional resources to disadvantaged students while also emphasizing decision-making at the local level, the formula aims to make state funding of California K-12 public schools fairer as well as better aligned with the needs of students, families and communities.

To reach these goals, transparency is key. Parents, educators, community members and other stakeholders need access to easy-to-understand information about the dollars districts receive to support disadvantaged students as well as about how districts spend these funds. In the coming days, legislators and the governor will make crucial decisions about transparency. The issue at hand is whether districts will be required to report the amount they receive through the new formula to support disadvantaged students and - more importantly - how they use those dollars to benefit them.

If state policymakers do not require this basic level of accounting, it will be very difficult for local stakeholders to answer some key questions about how the new funding formula is working: How much additional money do school districts receive to improve outcomes for disadvantaged students? To what extent are districts using these funds for new or enhanced programs and services that benefit these students? What do comparisons among districts point to as the best use of the money?

It's important to underscore that strengthening the reporting rules is not about restricting how districts use these funds, nor is it about chipping away at the principle of local autonomy that's central to the new funding formula. Setting clear guidelines on reporting how districts both receive and use the money is simply a matter of giving the public the information they need to hold policymakers accountable.

The stakes couldn't be higher. Because ultimately, the new formula is about more than how to fund our public schools - it's about the kind of future we desire for our state. If we want a California where all children have the chance to thrive academically and to grow up to be full participants in civic and economic life, it means ensuring that the resources the state has boldly committed to support the less-well-off are used for that purpose.

And if local control is how we ensure this, then state policymakers need to require a level of transparency that gives everyone the information they need to meaningfully participate in the decision-making process.

Jonathan Kaplan is a senior policy analyst with the California Budget Project, a nonprofit that advocates for low- and middle-income families.