Upwards of 200 people -- each limited to just a minute -- told members of the State Board of Education on Thursday how an overhaul of California school finance should be implemented to upgrade academic achievement, and all said they represented the interests of the state's 6 million public school students.
However, the 188 speakers -- many of them parents speaking through interpreters -- disagreed sharply on how the extra money should be handled, and some disagreement was evident within the board itself.
Ironically, the hours-long discussion coincided with federal education authorities' announcement Thursday that California's elementary students continued their poor standing in the latest nationwide reading and mathematics tests, ranking among the nation's 10 lowest-performing states. The tests showed, not for the first time, a wide gap between poor students and their more affluent classmates.
The Local Control Funding Formula enacted by the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown allocates extra money to districts with large numbers of poor and/or English-learner students to improve their achievement and while that concept draws wide support, the guidelines for spending the funds and monitoring the results have sparked sharp debate.
The board's draft regulations emphasize local decision-making, but critics say the guidelines are too loose and don't guarantee that the extra money would, in fact, be spent to improve the educations of the targeted students.
Generally, administrators and teachers, plus their unions, favored what they called "flexibility" and backed the draft rules, while education reform, civil rights groups and many parents said tighter controls are needed lest the money be diluted or frittered away. Some also sought tighter requirements for parental involvement in local implementation plans.
Much of the debate revolved about the draft's provision of three options for districts to serve the targeted students - spend more money, provide more services, or achieve more in educational performance - with critics saying they give local schools too much leeway to evade accountability for outcomes.
"It is sort of hard to separate the money from the services," said board president Michael Kirst, a Stanford University education professor who devised what he called a "weighted formula" to help low-achieving students and sold it to Brown, who in turn obtained legislative approval, albeit with a different name.
Another board member, Carl Cohn, said the debate reflected deep mistrust between parents and local school officials and for the new plan to succeed, there would have to be "a new level of trust-building at the local level."
Board members displayed some internal uncertainty on how to proceed and made no decisions Thursday, but promised attendees that the draft would be rewritten over the next two months to address the points that were raised during the hours-long hearing. State law requires the regulations to be adopted in January.
Sue Burr, a member of the board, said it is seeking "a delicate balance between accountability and flexibility."
PHOTO: A custodian cleans a classroom at Florin Elementary School in Sacramento on May 5, 2009. The Sacramento Bee/Randall Benton.