Brown’s LCFF experiment a rare school policy success

Brown’s LCFF experiment a rare school policy success

(Calif.) The LCFF is working.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s landmark restructuring of school funding, a redistribution of close to $18 billion in tax money over just 8 years, is helping to improve student performance–at least so far.

That’s the headline from a new study of classroom outcomes and district finance that compares students from the same neighborhoods and schools before and after implementation of the Local Control Funding Formula.

In what is perhaps the first research to clearly articulate the impact of the LCFF on student performance, university researchers correlated the program’s targeted spending increases with significant and measurable improvement in high school graduation rates, as well as test scores in math and reading.

A broader and perhaps more fundamental finding, however, is the clear relationship between higher per-pupil expenditures and better student achievement—contrary to a large body of other research and the opinions of many policy makers.

“Resources matter,” said Rucker Johnson, an associate professor of public policy at UC Berkley and lead author of the new research. “That’s the most important result of our study. The LCFF redistributed resources in a manner that more progressively targets students with higher needs and that has had a significant impact.”

Born out of academic theory a decade ago, the LCFF became a political possibility during the nadir of the recession as former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders scrambled to find any and all resources to keep schools open.

Political defense of tens of billions of dollars locked into a long list of categorical programs evaporated as desperation grew and virtually all of that money—or what was left of it—became integrated into the overall education budget.

When Brown took office, still fighting enormous deficits, he was then able to muster support for a new method of support that based state funding on individual district needs.

Beginning in 2013, the LCFF began increasing services to low-income students, English learners and children in foster care. Just as important, the LCFF removed Sacramento’s role as arbiter on the use of state money and gave local officials authority to make most spending decisions.

At the time, there were many skeptics. Indeed, some pundits suggested Brown’s plan was just another reform strategy that will be eventually discarded for something new.

Johnson’s study, one of more than 30 released earlier this month by a research collective supported by Stanford, the University of California and the University of Southern California, suggests otherwise.

What they found was that the LCFF’s first $1,000 increase in per-pupil spending on high school students led to a 5.9 percentage point increase in the high school graduation rate.

That same spending on 8th graders through grade 11 resulted in a .19 percent increase in math scores and a .08 percent jump in reading scores.

The study’s timeline spans more than 20 years, but the focus is on the years just prior to LCFF implementation and the immediate four years after, 2013 through 2016.

The impacts may even be greater up the road because, since 2016, even more money has flowed into the program generated by the state’s robust economy and the booming stock markets.

“It’s important to keep in mind that we are only in year four,” Johnson said, noting that the LCFF has only this year been fully funded. “These are quite remarkable results and yet, we are still in what I could consider to be the infancy phase.”

At the same time, however, Johnson was careful to point out that his work did not attempt to evaluate what districts did with their money nor to isolate best practices. He said those questions still need to be answered.

His study merely looked at school level outcomes before and after LCFF.

“We looked at what the trajectory of outcomes before LCFF was passed and the subsequent change in trajectory after,” he explained. “We are contrasting students of similar backgrounds and family, before and after.”

The marked improvements, he said, were induced by the LCFF increases in spending.

It is important to point out that this study, unlike many others that have looked at questions surrounding educational resources, was able to align student performance from the same schools over time.

This approach, he said, allowed them to better incorporate the “pre-existing disadvantage” of high needs students and to better mark the impact of a surge in spending.

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