Gov. Jerry Brown’s school funding plan aims to provide money from a new voter-approved tax hike to support those who need it most – foster children, English-language learners and low-income students.

But how will taxpayers know whether the extra money is improving education for California’s students?

Christie Ritter on Schools

Brown’s plan, the Local Control Funding Formula, includes an accountability measure, to try to ensure improvement in student achievements. San Diego Unified’s new budget, which was unveiled last  week, attempts to address the issue by funding smaller class-sizes for Kindergarten through third grade and restoring cuts to visual and performing arts, summer school and gifted and talented education.

There’s also money directed specifically at the struggling students the LCFF was intended to help. There will be funding aimed at boosting literacy amongst English language learners, and more support systems like graduation coaches and tutors to help at-risk high school students.

“How you spend your money shows what you care about and what you value,” San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten said when she presented her budget proposal to the school board.

The strings attached to this new money, though, allow parents, teachers and community members to monitor the district’s progress through a formal plan with specific annual goals for student performance.

Here’s how the whole plan is supposed to work: Through the new formula, school districts and charter schools will receive a base grant for each student enrolled, plus 20 percent more money from the state as a supplemental grant per high-need student. Districts with 55 percent or more of these students will receive an additional concentration grant of 50 percent per student. In San Diego Unified, an estimated 63 percent of students fall into one of the categories – either English learners, socioeconomically disadvantaged or in foster care, so the district will receive both the concentration and supplemental grants.

Like all other districts in the state, San Diego Unified must develop a Local Control and Accountability Plan, with input from  parents, teachers and other stakeholders. The plans will establish annual goals and provide details about how to achieve them. The plans must be aligned with district budgets and provide details about how funds will be spent to increase or improve services.

The district is developing its accountability plan now, holding five community forums over the next two months. The district must pass its budget – and its Local Control and Accountability Plan – by July 1. (The proposed budget also includes selling a further $10 million in district-owned property to plug a gap.)

But some parents and outside groups believe their efforts at holding the district accountable haven’t always been taken seriously.

Amy Redding, a parent volunteer who leads the District Advisory Council for Compensatory Education, already has a formal advisory role for the district. She complained at a school board meeting earlier this month that her advice was limited to a three-minute public comment on a particular agenda item. (Full disclosure: I’m a DAC parent representative, and a member of the PTA.)

“A wise client would never ask their doctor or lawyer to limit their advice to one- to-three minutes, and they would include them in the conversation,” Redding said.

Indeed, some activist groups are forming a coalition to make sure that San Diego Unified and other school districts listen to stakeholders now, while the formal accountability plans are being developed.

San Diego United Parents for Education is joining forces with the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, the San Diego PTA, Educate Our State, the San Diego League of Women Voters and the San Diego Chamber of Commerce Talent Development Committee to work on accountability for school funding.

Sean Karafin, a policy adviser with the Taxpayers Association, said the coalition will be giving recommendations to school districts, meeting with school officials, submitting letters and also speaking to school boards at their meetings.

Because the supplemental and concentration grants in Brown’s plan are based on the total enrollment of high-need students, school districts are required to collect income information from families in order to determine funding. The effort to have families fill out the Income Eligibility Survey Forms began in the fall and is continuing. Some families have been reluctant to fill out the forms with this personal information, but the district is required to submit the information to the state by March 21.

Ron Rode, executive director of the office of accountability for San Diego Unified, said it’s a challenge to get parents to turn in the cards, and that there may be phone calls and even home visits to families who have yet to turn them in as the deadline approaches. The income data is critical.

“Every card means dollars,” said district CFO Jenny Salkeld.

Christie Ritter is a freelance writer for Voice of San Diego, author of four books and a former newspaper reporter. She is a graduate of Clairemont High,...

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