How do education stakeholders, political leaders and policy experts view California’s school funding system and what would it take to come together around a comprehensive, coordinated effort to increase funding in California?
In this new episode, we explore these and other timely topics with Jason Willis and Carrie Hahnel, two co-authors of “Securing and protecting education funding in California,” a new study from Policy Analysis in California Education (PACE).
The report includes a great primer on California's education finance system -- and it provides an excellent frame for thinking about and addressing California’s school funding challenges.
New Resource: CA School Funding Crisis Explained in 12 Charts
We discuss several of the study’s key findings and recommendations – and we use the study as a springboard to engage Carrie and Jason in some “big-picture” conversation about the future of funding in California. Topics include:
ABOUT OUR GUESTS
Carrie Hahnel is an independent researcher and consultant and a fellow with The Opportunity Institute. Her work focuses on education policy, including school finance, accountability, and ways in which policies and systems can mitigate racial and socioeconomic inequities. Previously, Carrie served nine years at The Education Trust-West, where she led research and policy work. firstname.lastname@example.org
Jason Willis is Director of Strategy & Performance in the Comprehensive School Assistance Program at WestEd, a nonprofit research, development and service agency, where he oversees and guides performance and accountability practice to support state and school district efforts. Previously, he served as budget director, chief financial officer and assistant superintendent in the Oakland, Stockton and San Jose unified school districts, respectively. email@example.com
Your series guide, Paul Richman, is a public education advocate and consultant. firstname.lastname@example.org; follow at @pjr100
Policy Analysis in California Education (PACE) is an independent, nonpartisan research partnership among five CA higher education institutions that seeks to make research accessible and bring evidence to bear on the most critical issues facing our state.
The California Association of School Business Officials is the premier resource for professional development and business best practices for California's school business leaders. CASBO is dedicated to promoting excellence and professionalism in all aspects of school business. Learn more at CASBO.org; follow at @CASBO
What's Ahead for School Funding in California?
Adventures in Ed Funding Episode 33
Opening quote -- Carrie Hahnel, Researcher: [0:00]
Part of what we wanted to do with this report is take a temperature of where everybody is at and figure out what it's going to take for policy experts, political leaders and for education stakeholders to come together around a comprehensive, coordinated effort to increase funding in California.
Theme music begins.
Paul Richman, Adventures in Ed Funding host:
That’s Carrie Hahnel, one of the authors of a new report about education funding in California. In this episode, we’ll explore some of the key findings and recommendations in that report -- and we’ll use it as a launching pad for some big picture conversation about school funding with Carrie and one of her co-authors, Jason Willis.
Welcome back to Adventures in Ed Funding, the podcast presented by CASBO – the California Association of School Business Officials. I’m Paul Richman, your series guide.
Theme music ends.
“Securing and protecting education funding in California” – that’s the title of a new report released by Policy Analysis in California Education (PACE) for short. PACE is an independent, non-partisan research partnership among five CA higher education institutions that seeks to make research accessible and bring evidence to bear on the most critical issues facing our state.
This new report includes a great primer on California’s overall school funding system and it provides an excellent frame for addressing our funding challenges ahead. I encourage you to read the report at edpolicyinca.org or click on the link in our show notes.
**NEW: In conjunction with the report, PACE has also just released “California’s Education Funding Crisis Explained in 12 Charts”
It's a pleasure to be joined by two of the education researchers who worked on the report: Carrie Hahnel and Jason Willis.
Carrie is an independent researcher and consultant and a fellow with The Opportunity Institute. Her work focuses on education policy, including school finance, accountability, and ways in which policies and systems can mitigate racial and socioeconomic inequities.
Jason is Director of Strategy & Performance in the Comprehensive School Assistance Program at WestEd – a nonprofit research, development and service agency -- where he oversees and guides performance and accountability practice to support state and school district efforts. Jason also coauthored the important 2018 WestEd report, “Silent Recession: Why California School Districts Are Underwater Despite Increases in Funding.”
Both Jason and Carrie are two of my go-to people when I really want to learn and understand certain key funding and policy issues. And, I’ll share a little secret: When I want to sound especially smart, I just try to listen closely to what I’ve heard them say and pass some of it along as my own…Just kidding – well, sort of…Anyway, welcome Carrie and Jason to the podcast!
Thank you. It’s so nice to be here. I’ve been listening for a long time, Paul, so it's an honor to be on the show finally.
Jason Willis, Researcher:
Likewise, and really happy to be here and get a chance to get into some discussion with Carrie and you about this topic.
And so the two of you plus your colleague, Heather Hough, who we actually interviewed on a prior episode (“Why Investing in Public Education is Crucial to California’s COVID-19 Recovery”) worked on this new PACE report, “Securing and protecting education funding in California.” Obviously, this is a topic that we care deeply about on this podcast. I was wondering if you could maybe begin by giving us a sense of how you would characterize the current context that we're in as a state?
It's a really complex and difficult place that we're in as a state right now. We've always had challenges around funding, but now on top of that we have the pandemic, which has introduced the challenge of increased student needs. We're seeing that we need additional resources to support students' social and emotional well-being, to prevent learning loss, to address ongoing academic achievement needs. On top of that, we have the increased costs that are associated with the pandemic itself -- so things like safety and sanitization in our schools, and increased costs associated with distance learning like devices. And then you layer on top of that the fact that we're in an economic downturn, and so at the very time that we need additional resources to address additional needs, we actually have fewer funds available. So, it's really a perfect storm and presenting a whole set of challenges for educators right now.
So, tell us in broad strokes about this new study: What was the main purpose behind it?
Well, we wanted to get a lay of the land and to figure out where the conversation is, and where the political will is, around tackling the school funding issue in California – and what it would take to make progress. We wanted to first educate all of our prospective readers on how the system works. We thought it was important to put in one place some details on how our tax system works in California, how that undergirds our education school funding system and how the dollars flow to school districts. And that history is quite long and layered, and the infrastructure is fairly complex. When we tackled school funding reform with the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) we talked about distribution, but we didn't really look at where the money was coming from. So, we wanted to build a common understanding of how that all works – but more importantly, we wanted to understand why progress has been so hard and what it would take to move ahead.
And tell us a bit then about how you went about doing that.
Yeah, so there were two main pieces of the study. The first were a set of interviews. We interviewed people between roughly August of last year of 2019 and this spring. And we asked those people about their perspectives on school funding. We asked them whether they thought we had enough, whether if we needed more where that money might come from, their personal perspective that they had based on the seats they occupied about the commitment of that body – whether it was legislators or school district officials or parents or advocates – to increases in funding, and then also what they saw as viable solutions to get there.
So those interviews formed the basis of the study, but we also did a lot of document review to understand the history of tax policy and education funding in California. And we also looked nationally to see how California is situated relative to other states and in which ways it was an anomaly when it comes to its tax structure for school funding; and we talked with experts along the way to make sure we had a comprehensive picture that we could share in this report.
And you don't have to name names, but I know that you've listened to the podcast. Did you talk to anybody that we might recognize?
For sure, yeah. We've talked with leaders in various kinds of jobs. We thought it was important that we talk with people who are in the legislature, who are in our state agencies and dealing with the budget and with education decision-making; with people who are leading associations and advocacy organizations representing all interests from parents to business, to equity and civil rights. So those were definitely folks who were part of our interviews, but like I said, we also talked with researchers and experts because we wanted to make sure we had a really good understanding of what just good fiscal policy might look like.
You actually talked to people, I think, both before the pandemic and during, is that right? So, the span of time was a pretty good span?
Yeah, so, you know, research being what it is, you can have a set of interviews and a set of conclusions and then the world can change around you. And so we were doing this research when the pandemic hit and we did a little regrouping and I actually think that it was really helpful to have done a second round of interviews and research after the pandemic, because it ensured that we had thought about this question through the perspective of what's possible in good economic times – which is where we were a year ago – but also what's necessary and possible during an economic contraction, which is where we are today.
And Jason, let’s bring you in here. What are some of your thoughts on the timing and approach of this study?
One of the things that Carrie said is the way that we had conducted the research allows us to see and have a window into how these different vertical slices of our very complex California education system are; and it allows us to see where there are opportunities to ensure that as you set priorities, as you pursue goals, that it doesn't matter what swing or what side of that swing you're on -- if you're in a downturn or if you're in an upturn -- that you can continue to kind of chip away and make some progress on a set of key priorities. And I think that that is a particularly important point at this day and age because one of the things that we have seen for California and for many other states in the country is that the economic upturns and downturns are becoming more frequent and more severe in their swing. So by keeping your eye on the ball in what you're trying to do and how you're trying to plan for good public policy, that allows the system to do the work in this case of educating kids with a high quality education – it’s a really important point that I want to draw out from Carrie's comment there.
Yeah, thank you, Jason. And I think that's really interesting too, that in part, this work is really helping identify where the opportunities may be, and that if you're only in one part of this system, you're not able to connect those different dots the way you are by talking to people throughout the system?
Yeah, that's absolutely the case -- and I also think it gives us a tremendous amount of insight in understanding how people view these issues – folks at the state level, be it with the administration or with the legislature, with a state agency versus those that work in a lot of our support organizations like county offices or SELPAs versus those that are in districts or schools, everyone brings some real different perspective to this. And some of those kind of “through lines” that we see I think are really important values and tensions that we need to be able to wrestle with together as a state in thinking about what the set of solutions that we're going to need going forward are.
What are some of the overall themes from this latest research that you think people should most know about?
I think that there's a couple of themes here. One of which I hit on already is, is just wanting to think about constructing policy and implementation approaches that are cognizant of the economic and fiscal environment that we've been living -- and how it's been changing over the last 15 or 20 years.
I think the second that we really raise up is in thinking about where the contributions are for funding education -- and this is particularly when you look at whose responsibility should it be to think about funding. Is it the state's responsibility? Is it the local school district or county's responsibility. And, you know, the answer is probably somewhere in the middle, but I think the more important part there is to think about the tension that's created when you're considering that question. In particular, when states generally tend to allocate more funds for public education, the state can think more broadly about the allocation of those resources in an equitable manner. And that's certainly a trend we've seen across many states in the union over the course of the last couple of decades. However, when the locality picks up that responsibility, they really are tending to their set of students, right? So they're thinking about how they can best raise revenue to support their students, which doesn't always mean there are the guard rails for them to think more broadly about how does their level of funding and what they're doing for their students compare to other communities? And I think that's a fundamental tension that we raised in the paper that I think is really important for folks to pay attention to.
And then the last thing that I would say in terms of a major theme is this linkage between what we feel like is important and sufficient to fund public education and the sources by which we are gaining those funds in order to fund public education. And this is what I would describe as the big “step back” – taking a step back not just from thinking about what Proposition 98 provides for public education in California, but then also relatedly considering the sources of those funds. And is there something in the way that those sources of funds are put together that allows for opportunities for stability of our ongoing investments and appropriate investments that really prioritize equitable distribution, effective use of funds, and really kind of grows the quality of the system over time? And I think that's in part why it was important for us to kind of offer that landscape.
You know, I remember that we were at a panel, a conference, I think it was back in February, and one of the things that I asked the audience – there were probably a couple hundred folks in the audience – and I said, How many people in the audience could identify what the three types of students are that are included in the unduplicated count for the LCFF? And, you know, nearly everybody's hand shot up. And then I asked them, Well, could you also name the three major sources of revenue that actually supply funding to public education in California? And maybe a half a dozen of those hundred or so people raised their hands. And I think it's just indicative of this point that in a totality of the folks that advocate and invest in this work of public education, [we need to] take a step back to understand those broader policy mechanisms and how they're connected to one another.
The new PACE study makes several findings that probably will not surprise most who listen to our show, including that there is near-universal agreement that more funding is needed, though much less agreement on what an ultimate funding goal should be.
The report identifies options for closing the funding gap that fall into three main categories.
1. Making full and better use of available funds, including reprioritizing the overall state budget and better leveraging federal dollars;
2. Raising new tax revenues, mainly by increasing tax rates, expanding the tax base, or making other changes to the tax structure, and
3. Reducing tax expenditures, which include tax credits, deductions, incentives, and other tax breaks.
Some of these options we’ve discussed on previous episodes – and some we’re cueing up for future episodes. And again, you can dive deeper into these by reading the full report.
Background music ends.
Carrie, we know there are a range of options available to increase education funding. What’s holding us back as a state from pursuing them?
The challenges are political and they're about policy choices and trade-offs, They're not technical. The number of tax options we have available are really quite limited, and there are some general principles that drive what a good tax system might look like. You want it to be broad. You want it to be stable. You want it to have an ever-increasing source of revenues. Those are things that are known. What is unknown is how you balance all the priorities you might have as a state. How do you balance the value of local control with the value of equity? That was a really important theme that came out in our conversations. How do you align the challenges of a state that is extraordinarily expensive with a housing crisis and growing economic inequality? How do you tackle those challenges while also funding your school system and do it in a way that's coherent with sources of funding braided together. Those are tough policy decisions. And so that's where we found that there is inertia; it is around figuring out how to proceed on the political and how to balance all of these policy tradeoffs.
We did not see that there was a lack of awareness about what solutions are at hand. Those technical options, the tax options, are fairly known. It's just what happens next that wasn't broadly understood.
And then I guess the last thing that we heard is that the conversation about education funding is sitting right now in the education space and because all of these issues are connected in the way I talked about and I think in a way that we're understanding as just a state through COVID -- I mean, obviously there's so many people who've been working on this for a long time -- but when we talk about issues of food security and housing security and employment and childcare, these things are all community issues. And they're things that parents and families experience in an integrated and holistic way. Yet when we talk about revenues, we often talk about them as education people through the lens of education. And unfortunately our budget is far more complex than that. And the services that people are looking for are more complex, too.
So, I think it really pushed me anyway, to think more broadly and holistically about how we're putting together the right set of solutions for our families and thinking about the budget as a whole, rather than just the education budget by itself.
Going back to a point you made – and I think it’s so critical – at the end of the day, there's really a finite number of options that we have for raising revenue. And it makes me think about how do we ultimately choose the best options? Because no matter which policy option we go with, whichever revenue option we pick, some people and industries or sectors will be happy with it and some won't. And at some point we have to pick options that have the best political chance to get through, even if they might not be the best policy ideas on paper. So, any thoughts on how we as a state ultimately choose?
Well, in the report we suggest that the state create a master plan for education funding. And the reason we propose that is because we really did hear that the solutions need to be broader than a single tax increase or a single tax reduction and tax credit – that it needs to include multiple options. Part of that reason is because that's good fiscally because it broadens the base and brings multiple revenue sources into education. But the other reason is political. And that in order to get enough supporters and stakeholders, you need to be thinking about how you spread the burden of whatever you're doing across multiple stakeholder groups. Unfortunately, that means that you have to go through the hard work of bringing everybody together and building those coalitions and that shared table, but that ultimately is what is needed if we're going to have a comprehensive system that adequately funds our schools.
We have seen that what has moved actually more than that, though, have been these discreet policy plays; we've seen efforts like the one that we’re going to see on the November ballot (Proposition 15) to increase property tax rates on commercial properties up to market value. That's a really important policy change and by itself will be important, but not sufficient. And so the thing that we push towards in this paper is how do we build off of the energy of something like that, but also bring others to the table who are going to have other kinds of solutions that can be mixed together into a broader, more complex recipe so that we have a comprehensive approach to school funding.
And I'm somewhat of a grizzled skeptic having been through a number of different efforts and task forces and similar type master plans in the past. So how…why can this time be different in terms of being able to pull everyone together and make headway on this?
I think one of the places that we can really look to as a source of momentum is really what happened around the change through revenue limits to the LCFF. You know, that was what I would describe as a pretty tremendous moment for the public education community and the state, to think about a momentous change in the way that we recognized how dollars were necessary for students, particularly of low income, English learner and foster youth backgrounds, and that we were following evidence and were following research to understand how to provide a higher quality public education for them, and I think that that momentum shouldn't be lost on any individual in the public education community in California. And that moment of being able to bring people together was really important.
If I can jump in there. I mean, I really like Jason what you said about building on the momentum that we saw with LCFF. And I think what's different about this moment – and it’s been building towards this – is that we are a different California than we were when we passed Proposition 13 (Property tax initiative of 1978). That was a policy that severely constrained our ability to increase taxes. It squeezed revenues for schools; we've spent the last 40 years rebuilding from that. But that was in different time in California. It was a time when there was anti-immigrant sentiment. It came from a very racist perspective. It came from a perspective of believing that property rights were more important than the rights of the broader community and of things like schools. I think in today’s California, we saw what we did with LCFF. We have seen the movement for racial justice that's happening in our communities right now. We're seeing the importance of school as we weather this distance learning experiment; we're seeing that communities have been disinvested in for a long time, and that has hurt families, particularly those that need the most support.
And I do think that we're seeing that people are mobilized. We have seen the activism that has pushed Prop. 15 forward. That is an effort to increase taxes for schools that has not come from the legislature or from the governor or any other leaders in California, except for those in our communities. And I think what we're seeing is that that community leadership and that kind of voter engagement has really captivated people and transcended the way we can think about this.
And so I'm hopeful that that kind of momentum can push us forward to agree as a state to kind of collectively get behind this idea that we do need to invest more, and that there are ways we can do that if we leverage the voice and the power of people who have been engaged for years on this issue.
Yeah, and I love Carrie the way that you're describing that momentum. And I think one other thing that really dawned on me as you were talking, was thinking about, you know, we allude to this in the report as well – as this as being an issue around supporting California's children -- and not thinking about these issues of supporting children from the segment in which we sit. So, to say this like very straight: If you think about, for example, some of our most vulnerable student populations -- a foster youth student, for example, there are probably easily a half a dozen state and local agencies that are attempting to do something to support that student. And it's not often the case, in fact, it's fairly rare, that those state agencies or those local agencies think about how they can work together to advocate on behalf of that child to their local community to think about how they're investing in that child, how to support that child, be it whatever they need. If it’s a quality public education, it’s access to good healthcare, it’s a decent stable roof to sleep on underneath every night, bus tokens to get from one place to the other.
I think that it would change the conversation, it would change the way that we talk about what our investments need to be in California, if we were able to get to a place where those various advocates, those that support all children in the State of California, we're coming together to think about how to execute on that master plan. And I think Carrie laid out some really important seeds of how we might think about going about that.
Yes, and that was an exciting part of the report, some of the ideas that you're putting forward about how we need to not be so segmented – and the education sector, I think, is often guilty of that.
I want to still be a respectful skeptic for a moment longer in terms of some sort of master plan because I know in the report you talked about that state leaders really need to step up – elected officials, legislators -- that they really need to help drive and lead some type of master plan work. But the thing that I worry about is that a lot of times their incentives re more short term in nature in terms of being, you know, being reelected. They don't necessarily have incentive to do the kind of long-term planning that I think you're calling for. So, any thoughts on how you square that? I'm not necessarily criticizing legislators, but by nature, they're not necessarily needing to think eight years out or 12 years out or 20 years out…
Yes. I mean, I think that's a fair question that you're asking Paul, It’s, I think, one that the general public would also pose, to say, folks that are in elected office, do they have a different incentive structure than what we would establish from the perspective of the master plan? And I think that it would take a fair amount of political capital to stand that up and to build it. But I think that it could be supported by a couple of key components that might sustain it across election cycles over five, 10 or 15 years.
And I think the first one is to think about not just the coalition of internal stakeholders and state agencies or local or county agencies that might support this, but also to think about the tremendous base of support that you have externally; it could be equity advocate groups, it could be membership associations, it could be those that are doing work on behalf of children on a day to day basis. I mean, there's so much fertile ground to grab onto in terms of getting people to coalesce around a couple of these really important elements of thinking about what investments look like going forward.
I think the second and where the state might also benefit is in thinking about what are the things that we collectively want for our kids in this state – and thinking about that not just from our perspective in K-12 education, but also thinking about what does it mean? What do we want for our children when they're they turn one year old? What do we want when they're three? What do we want when they get to pre-K, you know, all the way up through their postsecondary experience, because what we've come to learn, when you get into things like, you know, child development and brain development for kids that are really young, what it means to create systems that help to effectively transition students from high school to postsecondary and how those navigation skills look different, is that the indicators that we might establish are actually not that different and they actually build upon one another, and so what would it mean for the state to own that set of indicators together?
Jason, another topic I’ve heard you bring up before as it relates especially to long-term planning, is the importance of schools demonstrating how effectively they are spending their current funding. Can you talk about that?
What we have to be aware of as a community broadly, if this master plan is to come together -- if we're going to get a broad coalition, a cross-coalition of support -- we have to make a better case for how the money we are currently investing in the system is having an impact; how it's making a difference from individual classrooms and students to full school districts to charter schools to counties to the entire state.
I think that creates confidence, that bodes confidence in people's ability to, you know, open their pocketbooks back up or their wallets back up and say, Yeah, I'm willing to make another investment because I can see how the system is creating benefit for my children or the people in my community, or it's producing people that are more engaged citizens and people that are helping to contribute to the economy and a better social life.
That seems like a really big linchpin in being able to advance this notion of a master plan; that we're looking to recent reference points in which we're able to come to agreement on some really key elements, that we're able to identify ways in which our current investment is reaping benefits for our students in the system; and that we confront head-on some of the challenges that we're seeing in the system in terms of holding ourselves to account in terms of how we're using those resources and what things we need to change in the system to create a better benefit for all of our students.
We’ll come back to more conversation about the school funding study in just a moment – but first, let’s learn a bit more about our two guests. Jason, prior to joining WestEd, you also served in roles that I know many of our listeners can relate to in the business office of several school districts, is that right?
That's right. I started in Oakland Unified School District as a budget director during the days of state administration for them, and I helped with kind of getting them up to the transition back to local control, as a part of a broader team effort. I then spent several years in Stockton Unified School District as their chief business officer, helping them, as many other CBOs around the state were helping their districts, to get through the Great Recession. Then I spent five years with San Jose Unified School District in a bit of a broader role in establishing and then helping to implement their five-year strategic plan; going through some significant reforms around funding, our work with our teachers and labor partners, as well as various other system redesigns in terms of teacher and staff recruitment.
And Carrie, tell us a bit more about your connection to education policy and what motivates you to do research to improve the system?
Right now, it's so hard not to be focused on what it means to be part of the public education system in light of what's going on with the pandemic. And it doesn't get more personal than being a parent of two elementary school children. I know Jason you're in the same boat and experiencing what it means to be doing distance learning at home and seeing firsthand how hard educators are working and how much resources really matter -- both the resources in our school system and the resources that either families have to bring to bear or can't bring to the table to support student learning. And so, as a parent, I'm thinking hard about how the system is working for my kids, for my community and for the whole state.
And most recently before moving into your role as an independent researcher, what were you doing?
Before this, I spent about 10 years in advocacy. I was with The Education Trust-West, where I was advocating for equitable opportunities for students across California. And I started looking at school funding because I was looking at opportunities and access and other areas like access to coursework, access to quality teachers -- and anytime you're looking at those things, it naturally led us as advocates, as researchers, as coalition builders to looking at the importance of money. A lot of the conversation at the time was focused on how we distributed resources, but what has become abundantly clear is that we can't talk about equity and funding without talking about adequacy in funding. And so I'm really glad that the conversation is shifting back toward adequacy and also weaving together adequacy and equity.
Coming back to my own community, too, just another connection I'll make is that I've been involved in the school funding conversation here. I've helped campaign for a parcel tax in my school district. And I also chair an oversight committee that looks at how the parcel tax dollars are spent in my district. So, I've been involved as a parent, as an advocate, as a researcher, and also as an oversight member who wants my district to use its resources efficiently.
I know the two of you spoke to a wide range of people at different levels and roles in the system. Carrie, maybe you first, was there anything that you heard that especially surprised you or was kind of an "a-ha" moment?
Yeah, that's a good question. We heard broad agreement that more funding is needed, so that didn't surprise me. But where people went next was quite different. I was surprised that there still is...oh, I shouldn't say surprised, but...I noted that there was still a lot of skepticism, especially, I'd say at the legislative level about whether schools need more money when we have just substantially invested in them. And it's true that we have invested quite a bit in California education over the last few years. Funding has increased up until this moment, and so there was some feeling that the legislature has done quite a bit, and wondering whether, you know, they could see the results of that before investing more.
There was also this use of Proposition 98, as sort of, um, I wouldn't call it an excuse, but there was this kind of feeling that Proposition 98 provides a guarantee that schools will get roughly 40% of the budget and therefore, education is taken care of. And, one of the things we started to wonder and explore in these conversations is whether Prop. 98 is useful or not?
[Listen also to our Adventures in Ed Funding episode "Have we got a Proposition for you? Proposition 98 and a Brisk Hike Through California School Funding History."]
There are certain protections that it provides, but there are also ways in which it's used to prevent the legislature from putting more money into schools. And that was something that we looked at and discussed in the report and [I] think needs some more research as we go forward.
Yes. I just was going to absolutely underscore that point you made, Carrie about thinking about these, what I would describe as main staples of the way that we've thought about public education funding in California. I think Proposition 13 is certainly one of them; Prop. 98 comes very close as number two. And that point you made about what Prop. 98 infers about the latitude that state officials have to think about investments in public education, I think is absolutely worth deeper and further investigation as that might be one of the places where we would have to take a step back and say, Hey, is this doing more benefit for our system rather than holding us back from thinking about some broader set of options for investment?
[Listen also to our Adventures in Ed Funding episode "More Very Moments in California School Funding History: A View From Inside the Capitol."]
Yeah, yeah, Jason, that's right. And there were other things like that, that we kept stumbling across and a big "a-ha" for me is that there are all kinds of hidden, almost stealth things in our education funding infrastructure that either have been forgotten or hidden, or are known only by the handful of analysts who have to deal with them every year: Tax shifts that have happened over the years that have pulled money out of Prop. 98 and put it into other funding sources; realignments that have taken money from the state level and pushed it down to the county level to fund various kinds of services; ERAF, which is the Educational Revenue Augmentation Fund -- all these really technical not so exciting things, but that have managed to substantially shift money in and out of education over the decades in ways that I for one didn't fully understand and appreciate. And so the big learning for me is that this system is incredibly complex; there are a few people who fully understand it. Institutional memory is slim in Sacramento in particular. There are some people who have been in the trenches forever and could tell you every nuance of the education funding system, but they're few and far between. And when we look at the way the legislature works, you know, people come in and out, both electeds and their staff, with some exceptions. You see that there's relatively short memory around education funding. So to fix some of these issues, we have to go way back. So I found myself wondering how we do that and how we hold onto some of that knowledge so that people are really equipped to learn from the past as they look toward the future.
And did you come up with anything? How do we do that? It's a tough question.
Well, I mean, this conversation is part of it, right? It's, I think, all of us doing the work to get smarter and deeper in this space and understand that this is a long game that we're in. There will be some immediate wins. And I certainly hope that we see them; every win is helpful. But there has to be a contingent of folks who understand that this is the work around building stronger, better schools in California. It demands that we have stable and sufficient resources. I think that is why that coalition of stakeholders needs to be broader. I don't doubt that the commitment is there, but we do need some infrastructure to stand that up.
And Jason, what about you? Was there anything that especially surprised you or was an "a-ha" from what you heard?
One of the things that I was kinda struck by, and I think this was articulated in our recommendations, was around strengthening the fiscal transparency and analysis about how stakeholders understand how money is being used.
I can't seem to shake this idea that the one term that always comes to mind when I think about the value of the Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) and in helping communities to see the deeper connection between how resources are driving priorities in the community, and I think perhaps the vision that we had for those documents and what they were going to do for communities has turned out really differently from the way that we see the landscape today; I think in some ways good, and in other ways, uh, probably something to reflect on.
But the word that always comes up for me around that is trust -- is that, you know, largely what seems to undergird the creation of those documents, the way you communicate priorities in your school or school district or charter community, really comes down to trust. How much do you trust that principal or that superintendent or those school board members to act in the best interests of the students and the parents in those communities? I think the state has a role to play in helping to identify what are some of those really key and core priorities. And I can't help but think that we, as a state, might've benefited by a little bit more direction, a little bit more of, Hey, here's a couple of places that we want to see you going, that pushes beyond just providing funds to these more vulnerable student populations.
And again, I think that really goes back to that tension of how much control do you give to the local community to do their work, to frame up resources and the system around the needs of the students versus how the state helps to garner the energy of the sector and of child-serving agencies more generally to really drive momentum and help support those systems in their implementation of work at the local level.
It is such a tough balance. And I feel like we, you know, the pendulum has swung much more toward local decision-making in the last decade, but I think a lot of locals would argue when the pendulum was swung much more towards the State’s way that we, the state, didn't necessarily have the answers either -- at least at that time. That's just my editorial comment....
No, I think that's fair. And, you know, we tend to have this notion in both politics and policy of swinging the pendulum, right? It's something you learn in one of your basic public policy courses -- that you will see pendulum swing. Then I think often about the moments we were ready to move in that direction. You need to kind of get people to acknowledge and see that the changes that need to occur in whatever policy you're trying to address. And I can't help but think that often maybe we go too far, that maybe we're trying to find that, um, call it the "Goldilocks Principle," like the just-sweet spot between how we hold that tension, [whether] it's on issues and thinking about equity versus local control or the state’s imposition of direction and guidance and support as opposed to the ability of local school boards, superintendents to make their independent decisions.
And I think that's where the work is. I think it's in helping to provide the right set of resources to let people wrestle with that tension. But ultimately keeping students and their best interests at the center of every one of those decisions.
If I can build off that, Paul: One of the things we did hear and it's not just about transparency, but it was about accountability more generally -- it's that people were concerned that we pushed money to school districts without sufficient accountability. And we haven't figured out what/how to get that right.
As Jason mentioned, the LCAP, I think there's broad agreement has fallen short in a lot of ways, but as we think about school funding systems and the connections they have to accountability, I think it's worth asking whether we have connected ours at all to accountability. I mean, we have not done what some other states have started to wrestle with -- and maybe that's the next chapter for us to look at, what's going on in places like Texas, where they're starting to put incentives into the funding system, so that it's not just about getting dollars for students by where you live and the needs of your students, but also encouraging districts to graduate students and giving them incentives for doing so. We have tackled that to some extent in California at the community college level, with our new community college funding formula. It's worth asking whether there are lessons learned from that, that we could apply to K-12, because I think that's where we heard a lot of distrust and skepticism, especially from I'd say mostly from Sacramento, from certain folks there, like in the legislature, who wonder where's the funding going? How are you accounting for it? And how do I know that it's leading to the kinds of changes we'd like to see?
There's been all this work around the system of support and continuous improvement, and I think there's a lot of energy in some circles around that, but in others, there's still a lot of confusion; it still feels vague to people. They don't understand what it is. And while they're behind the spirit of it, it doesn't feel as tangible as money. And so we did hear that there was a desire to invest in a comprehensive system of support that centered around continuous improvement, but some worry that we're spreading money across regional entities and support providers without knowing whether it's being used efficiently, without knowing exactly what's being done, how that's translating into outcomes. I think we need to do a better job explaining that system to people to make our accountability system feel real and supported and showing the connection between better results for students and the money.
Right, right, and…
And Jason, you've been more involved In that system of support than me, so you might have a different perspective on it, but that's, you know, certainly what we heard from interviews with some of the policymakers and staff.
No, no, I mean, certainly in terms of the work that we've done at WestEd, we've helped and supported the state on a variety of facets of the LCFF implementation. But I think the point you're underscoring there, Carrie, I think is dead on -- these are major facets of the way that the system is implemented and the way that people that operate in the system understand and interpret and see messages that are coming.
When you think about the structure of funding, when you think about the structure of accountability, and you can throw transparency in there if you think about things like the California Dashboard and then these elements of support -- and if they're not well coordinated, if they're not well attuned to making sure that you're aligning up those incentives, and in some cases, you know, as you're stating, Carrie, that they're not tight enough in thinking about both the carrots and the sticks, if you will, of following through on the commitments in exchange for taking the money -- you can start to see gaps, both in where folks are able to kind of follow through on the implementation, but also in ultimately the results that you're seeing in the system.
I will also say that the changes that California went through with the LCFF were some of the biggest that I've seen by any state in the country. And we needed to provide time and space to support that implementation. Now, seven years in and we're in another recession. I think this is a potentially a chance and an opportunity to take a step back and say, What have we learned? How do we work in this circumstance and situation? And I think folks out there in the field are doing everything they can to keep things together, to offer as high a quality education as they can in this moment. And I also think this is one of potentially those opportunities to rethink some of those approaches fundamentally.
So…we have covered a lot of important areas in our conversation. And it’s always great to learn from the two of you. Before we wrap up, is there anything we haven’t had a chance to mention yet that you also wanted to talk about? And Jason, maybe I'll start with you?
Yeah, I was hoping you'd start with Carrie. Because that's a good question -- but no, I'm happy to go first.
You know, I think the one place that I would go back to is really underscoring the politics of this situation that, as Carrie and I have talked about, the choices are pretty well known about what is possible for raising additional revenue for the system. I think that that where the opportunity lies to garner even greater momentum is in figuring out this equation of how to show the voting public, to show our broader community in California that we are making good use of these investments that they are giving to us. You know, one of the first lessons I learned as I was becoming a CBO from a close mentor of mine was, This isn't your money. This is taxpayers' money. And so you have to be good stewards of it. You have to think deeply about how you make choices on behalf of the board, on behalf of the broader community. And I took that charge and I still take that charge very seriously, and I think it's important that we, as a community, figure out how to communicate that simply and with some elegance to the voters so that they can see how we are and what we were doing with those investments. So they have confidence that not only can we continue to do well on behalf of our kids, but that we can change ourselves to get even better outcomes for our students, particularly our most vulnerable populations.
I think I would add that we are no doubt focused on the short-term immediate crisis in front of us. And I hope that we can use this as an opportunity to not only address our immediate needs, but to put in place things that will benefit us in the future. I think that the natural instinct of leaders and policymakers is to do things that are temporary. So we've issued deferrals to school districts, we've reduced some tax credits for businesses for a short period of time. But how can we put in place things that are going to benefit us long term, so we're not asking districts to have to borrow instead of the state; so that we're understanding that corporations and businesses have been winners in this economy for a long time? How do we restructure things, so that rather than giving, you know, taking a little bit of that back during a recession, we're actually starting to think about how we structure our tax system so that we're all contributing and helping shore up California? The pandemic is by no means an opportunity, but hopefully in the things that we're doing now, we're thinking about what helps today, but also what's going to help several years from now.
Theme music begins.
Well said, Carrie – and we’re going to make that the last word for now.
Many thanks to both Carrie Hahnel and Jason Willis for discussing the future of California school funding with us. And a sincere thanks to you as always for joining us on the podcast.
Adventures in Ed Funding is presented by CASBO, the California Association of School Business Officials. My name is Paul Richman and I’m your series guide. Tommy Dunbar handles all of our music, editing and sound. Be sure to visit the website for more information about this episode and to find previous episodes. We welcome your comments and feedback, too, at email@example.com
Until next time, stay safe, and remember to think long-term.