Above: From left to right, EdSource Executive Director Louis Freedberg, Children Now Senior Education Policy Director Samantha Tran and SFUSD Office of Family and Community Engagement Coordinator Ruth Grabowski.
SAN FRANCISCO – Getting parents more involved in their children’s education can be difficult, particularly in poor and immigrant communities. But it’s a challenge school districts in California are now tasked with under the state’s new school finance law, known as the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF).
Experts say the law’s success -- LCFF has been hailed by some education reformers as a historic step toward achieving equity across California’s school system -- will ultimately depend on whether or not districts can effectively engage the communities they serve, starting with the parents.
“This is an opportunity for California to create a better [education] system,” said EdSource Executive Director Louis Freedberg. “But it’s up to parents to make it a meaningful process.”
He noted that prior to LCFF, education reform in California had largely been a top-down affair, with Sacramento issuing marching orders for districts to follow. The new law, signed last year by Gov. Jerry Brown, is expected to “bring some balance” back to the relationship between school districts and the state, by giving districts and their communities more authority in setting spending priorities.
At a news briefing hosted by New America Media on Wednesday, Freedberg announced the release of a new report conducted by EdSource in collaboration with NAM, that highlights the impact of parent involvement in schools.
The key finding in the report, titled “The Power of Parents,” is that student performance improves dramatically when parents are involved in their child’s education. This is particularly true for English Learners and low-income students, the primary targets of LCFF. The report also found positive correlations between parent involvement and school climate, as well as teacher satisfaction.
Under LCFF, noted Freedberg, two components define parent engagement: direct involvement with the child and their school, and engagement at the district level to help identify areas of need.
It’s a tall order, Freedberg acknowledged. “Getting parents involved in schools is extremely difficult,” he said. But when done effectively, it can “create the basis for other improvements” in schools.
Samantha Tran, director of education policy with the advocacy group Children Now, joined Freedberg on the panel at Wednesday’s briefing, along with Ruth Grabowski from the office of Family and Community Engagement for the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD).
Tran noted that only a handful of people in the state truly understood the previous school finance plan – notorious for its complexity -- which was comprised of a series of categorical funding streams strictly earmarked for specific purposes. The new law – which replaces most of the categoricals with a system based on student need – is expected to make the district funding process more transparent.
And after years of cuts, she said, that’s essential to rebuilding trust. “We have to make sure that people understand the process,” she explained, “and that they feel their voices are being heard.”
Under LCFF, funding for school districts will be increased every year over eight years, when officials expect to reach full funding levels. Tran called the law an “investment in equity,” but echoed Freedberg in stressing that change would be gradual. “This is a slow culture shift.”
Part of that shift involves rethinking how districts engage with their communities. By July, each district will be required to present what is known as a Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP), a three-year budget that draws, in part, on community input. The process also involves forming Parent Advisory Committees. Freedberg stressed the importance of monitoring how those committees are formed and whether or not they are reflective of the entire community.
Tran suggested districts would need to think of ways to reach communities that go beyond school boundaries, such as reaching out to community and civic leaders. But she underscored the fact that efforts to implement LCFF are a work in progress. “There’s no one who has the figured out.”
Grabowski agreed with Tran, saying much of the work around LCFF in San Francisco is “still being worked out.” But, she added, SFUSD is already well on its way – a number of groups have been formed to better tap into the city’s varied communities, including a Parent Advisory Council (PAC) which was appointed by the city’s Board of Education.
She also highlighted a series of upcoming open forums (PDF) between now and June meant to draw on public opinion as the district prepares its spending plan.
“There has to be two-way communication,” Grabowski said.
For Tran, a key concern going forward is that districts may look to meet the “minimum requirements” under LCFF, without attempting what she called “authentic and meaningful” engagement.
Which is why, she said, there is a growing recognition among education advocates and community leaders that the opportunities presented by LCFF are “ours to lose.”
For more on parent involvement, see NAM's special reporting Parents Speak Up. For an in-depth guide to California's new school finance law, see EdSource's Essential Guide to LCFF.