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Updated: Nov 1, 2023

This is Part III of a series of blogs on resource allocation in the LCFF era.

If you have been paying close attention, you know that in the last 20 years there have been over a hundred communities that have taken action to secede from their local school districts. Seventy-three have succeeded, often creating a wealthier school system compared to the district from which they seceded. Many more secession efforts are underway. Studying this phenomenon in my resource allocation class through the lens of social justice, it’s clear that the motivation behind secession efforts is invariably school funding; and the result of secession is more segregation. This battleground has become a contest of wills as desegregation plans have been enacted at the same time, many though not all, by court order.

In a recent report published as one in a series of studies on school finance undertaken by the Learning Policy Institute, titled Sharing the Wealth: How Regional Finance and Desegregation Plans Can Enhance Educational Equity, authors’ Brittain, Willis, and Cookson found cooperative inter-district approaches are often the most effective ways to address racial and ethnic segregation, and most financial inequity, which they concluded occurs between, not within, school districts. They posed the questions: What if student attendance policies and school finance policies were not confined to individual school districts but were thought of as crossing and uniting districts in a region?

What if districts were to share resources and collaborate to create a system of public schools that are integrated and designed to meet the needs of diverse students and families?

What they are alluding to are inter-district desegregation plans. Generally, desegregation plans are agreements that are entered into voluntarily. They typically share a principle of resource concentration and working within the local context, according to the authors of this particular study. They pointed to three district plans and focused on three distinct elements: district action, financing, and outcomes. The longest continuously running voluntary desegregation plan is the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) in Boston, designed to expand educational opportunity for inner-city students and create more diverse suburban classrooms.

METCO has served 3,300 students in 42 school districts. The one-way voluntary racial balancing program transfers students of color from Boston and Springfield into the surrounding suburban districts, paying costs for transportation, in addition to $5,000 for each student to the receiving district beyond the usual per-pupil allocation. The statewide education funding formula (Chapter 70) factors METCO into their calculations. Program outcomes are promising.

Another district highlighted in the study is in Hartford, Connecticut. A court case set in motion a 4-year timeline to place 30% of Hartford students of color in schools in which minorities constitute less than three fourths of the student body. Reforms included two-way transfers between Hartford schools and those of surrounding districts. The state invested $1.4 billion in school construction over the first 10 years, as well as per-pupil grants to receiving districts to make inter-district transfers attractive and affordable. The Hartford program has proved to be promising as evidenced by improved scores for all student subgroups on state mastery and performance tests.

The final district studied was in Omaha, Nebraska. In this case, legislation was introduced to bring about regional governance, tax-base sharing and resource redistribution, and a diversity plan. A choice-based mobility program aimed to deconcentrate high-poverty schools. A joint-powers authority was created to assess a common levy to equitably move dollars across district boundaries. The equity formula combined the value of all property taxes, giving greater weight to students from low-income families and English language learners. This weighting system was designed to incentivize more affluent communities to welcome less affluent students, since the money followed them. Despite success, Nebraska lawmakers eliminated the common levy and eliminated the transfer law. The program exists today but is not as robust. Lessons learned from the Nebraska experiment, as well as in Boston and Hartford, include a political strategy that is sensitive to the local context.

Money mattered in realizing desegregation plans. But they haven’t realized their aim to improve outcomes for underrepresented students. The question may not be whether or not money matters, instead the question may be whether who governs matters.

The choice movement is now firmly rooted and as it continues to grow it will bring into question the effectiveness of local governance. As the recently appointed President of the California State Board of Education, Linda Darling-Hammond has written, “Choice should be viewed—and evaluated—as a means to higher quality, more accessible, and, ideally, less segregated schools, not an end in it itself.” Hammond is among the most influential voices in the national dialogue on the equity debate.

She has been criticized for her 2018 report, The tapestry of American public education: How we can create a system of schools worth choosing for all?, for not opposing the expansion of charter schools. In the piece, she takes a pro-choice stance, supporting open-enrollment and the development of magnet schools and theme schools. The report, co-written by her and published by the Learning Policy Institute, the think tank she leads with a mission to conduct independent, high-quality research to improve education policy and practice, asked the question, “What will it take to achieve a system of schools worthy of Dewey’s vision? More than a century ago, in The School and Society, John Dewey wrote: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.”

In the report, Darling-Hammond and her co-authors wrote: “Too often, questions related to school and program design get debated and decided in terms of the preferences of adults, not the needs of children. The key questions should be: How do we create high-quality learning environments for all children? Are there some schools or programs that are oversubscribed and could be replicated or expanded rather than setting a fixed number of slots and rationing access? Are there some groups of students who are not receiving adequate and equitable learning opportunities? Are there groups of students or schools that are underperforming? Are there certain neighborhoods in which families do not have high-quality choices? Subsequent questions should help determine how those needs might best be met. Answers to these questions surface strategies that can improve educational opportunities, such as redesigning schools, adding wraparound services, increasing bilingual services, improving training and recruitment of special education teachers, or investing in new curriculum approaches.”

I am among those who wholeheartedly and without reservation support Dr. Darling-Hammond’s position on choice and accept the challenge to create opportunities for the neediest of children by working tirelessly to ensure equity and opportunity for our nation’s children, even if it invites criticism by those who believe otherwise.

The realization of Dewey’s vision is a noble cause given the fact that large achievement gaps persist in California by race, ethnicity, income, and English learner (EL) status. California’s new Governor, new Superintendent of Public Instruction, and new President of the State Board of Education are uniquely positioned to shape policy and subsequently the future of education in California. The time is now.

Choice, charters, and privatization have divided our nation. The division is growing along with the achievement gap and the growth of charter schools. While California’s new superintendent of public instruction, Tony Thurmond, supports democratically-controlled public schools, the political mapping towards 2020 is underway as advocates for school privatization and private management of public education (including some forms of charter schools) jockey for position. Choice is popular in California. That became evident when the school district of choice provisions in Education Code sections 48300-48317, scheduled to become inoperative on July 1, 2017, were extended until July 1, 2023.

Choice lives in California. Savvy school boards will take the advice of Linda Darling-Hammond and create school systems worth choosing.

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