New Engagement Initiative Goes to Heart of Local Control and LCFF Accountability

By Liz Guillen, Director of Legislative and Community Affairs

A statewide coalition of grassroots community groups known as the Defend & Mend Coalition has won a major victory with the creation of a new $13.3 million state-funded program that promises to bring new life and practices into local community engagement and shared decision-making processes under the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). LCFF is the law that reformed the way California spends its education dollars and which requires direct involvement of parents and students in deciding what to fund.  The Defend & Mend Coalition is dedicated to making sure the LCFF law delivers on its promises for equity and is continually strengthened through oversight and advocacy.

What makes this win so significant is that the effort to establish the Community Engagement Initiative was led by the grassroots coalition in partnership with legislators and various government stakeholders. The Defend & Mend Coalition, made up of more than 15 organizations from across the state, works directly with parents and students who advocate for services targeting low-income students, foster youth and English learners in their Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPS).

Community leadership involving local parents, students and teachers in the development of district spending and LCAPs is a cornerstone reform within LCFF that we and our partners helped to shape and pass in 2013.  When the LCFF was enacted in 2013, Public Advocates, Californians for Justice, and our grassroots partners who now form the Defend and Mend Coalition were excited about bringing greater resources to the neediest students and to empower students, parents, staff and communities to be involved in decisions about how to allocate these resources and work together to make their schools better.

However, over the last five years since the passage of LCFF, we have been frustrated by how many school districts across the state still lack the capacity and the knowledge to effectively engage their communities.   When LCFF launched, most school districts were not prepared with the skill sets and practices necessary for meaningful stakeholder engagement and school climate assessment and improvement. They were not prepared to figure out how to engage students and parents in the LCAP process. These processes represent significant shifts in the way schools are supposed to be held accountable for their spending practices under LCFF. After five years of LCFF implementation, researchers, community members, and equity advocates agree that stakeholder engagement in the continuous improvement process remains a work in progress. In a recent survey of 350 California school superintendents, 75% supported the community engagement requirements under LCFF, but even more said stakeholder engagement continues to be a challenge.

Along the way, we have identified some practices and assumptions that we and our grassroots partners feel lie at the core of poor engagement outcomes in the new world of LCFF. Chief among those are that districts were not resourced with the necessary tools and means to take on this new role of stakeholder engagement in their LCAPS. Those that were able to leverage community partnerships and/or make spaces to figure out how to engage well have been successful. Because of the overall mixed results across the state, as a Coalition we decided to focus our collective energy on this effort to boost local capacity. We know that if we can’t improve the meaningful stakeholder engagement piece, a central component necessary for the implementation of LCFF, the success of LCFF will be limited.

The good news is that most districts seem genuinely invested in effectively engaging their parent, student and teacher communities. Parents and students are ready to work alongside their districts and schools to begin the hard work of building relationships and trust to move into truly shared decision-making.

The Community Engagement Initiative sets this next phase in motion by supporting development of a professional learning network among districts and key county offices across the state over the next six years, eventually reaching as many as 80 districts. Out of this learning network, we hope to see new practices, tools, understandings and expectations develop around community engagement that will spread statewide. In addition to this win, our advocacy helped to bring about a greater focus on Improving School Climate with an infusion of $15 million in the Multi-Tiered System of Support. This will help to foster a positive school climate in both academic and behavioral areas, including support for positive behaviors, restorative justice, bullying prevention, social and emotional learning, as well as trauma-informed practice, and cultural competency.

We have been working with the Administration and Assembly Member Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) throughout the budget year to increase effective engagement practices locally. We applaud the administration and legislators for listening to the needs of the community. Specifically, we were pleased to see the Administration introduce the Community Engagement Initiative in the May Revise and support its process through the legislature. To successfully implement LCFF, we will need this type of leadership moving forward—one that looks to grassroots communities for expertise and guidance. Our goal is that communities and school districts build the capacity to “have difficult conversations with each other and build trust, with a focus on improving outcomes for pupils,”[i]  as was stated in the legislative language that led to the creation of the new Community Engagement Initiative.

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