Stanford's Michael Kirst, an innovator for education
Longest serving state Board of Education president and longtime professor has played key role in giving local school districts more control
Revolutionary change in public education is rare.
Yet California's public school districts are today in the midst of a sea change, due largely to the efforts of Michael Kirst, the longest serving state Board of Education president and a longtime professor at Stanford University's Graduate School of Education.
Kirst, close to 80 years old, is now in his 52nd year of an uncommon career in education policy. Despite an intimidating CV that spans decades of education experience, from the White House to the California school board, the retired professor conveys neither self-importance nor pretensions. Mild-mannered and affable, Kirst seems at home in his comfortable Stanford office, reflecting on years past while sitting beneath a ceiling-high wall of books (some of which he's authored) and a black-and-white photograph of his younger self shaking hands with President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. On a recent summer afternoon, a single large window was thrown open to let in the breeze and the sounds of campus visitors.
Despite the late stage of his career, Kirst recently shepherded through a dramatic shift in how California school districts operate -- from government-driven, top-down budgeting to an emphasis on local autonomy and community involvement. He has been called the "key architect" of the state's new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), which since 2013 has required California school districts to develop three-year Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAP), which spell out how they will spend funding to improve education for all students. When Gov. Jerry Brown signed this bill into law on July 1, 2013, he called it "truly revolutionary."
"We are bringing government closer to the people, to the classroom where real decisions are made, and directing the money where the need and challenge is greatest," he said. "This is a good day for California, it's a good day for school kids, and it's a good day for our future."
While the governor and many others have championed the new funding formula as a historic reform for California's encumbered public school system, it has also been criticized by some advocacy groups who worry more local flexibility and less accountability could hurt high-needs students. However, independently conducted studies of the local-control formula that have uncovered concerns about transparency and accountability are nonetheless optimistic about this next era in California education.
The Local Control Funding Formula set uniform funding rates based on districts' average daily student attendance across particular grades. It aims to help the districts that need the most aid by providing supplemental funding for certain student subgroups, such as English language learners, low-income students and foster youth, and concentration funding for districts whose English-learner and low-income populations exceed 55 percent of their enrollment. It eliminated approximately 75 percent of special state programs created to serve needs not met by general fund regular education programs, known as categorical programs. Now only 14 are left.
This was "almost an 180-degree turn" for a system entrenched in decades of categorical programs and incremental funding, Kirst said in an interview with the Weekly.
"You were stage managing the local," he said. "It was, as I call it, a historical accretion with no underlying rationale and no linkage to student needs. For every categorical program that helped low-income students, they passed one for the middle-income (students). It was very complex.
"That spurred the idea that we need to move back to some simple principles, pass these simple principles, unload the past and start with a new paradigm," he said.
Welcome to the new paradigm. Three years in, school districts across the state are adjusting to the new formula, which provides districts dollars based on the demographic profile of the students they serve. Despite representing a step back for the government, it also put in place "enhanced" accountability requirements, Kirst wrote with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson in an August 2013 letter to superintendents and charter school administrators about the impending changes. Among other criteria, the formula requires strong parent involvement -- a requirement that has spurred new levels of community participation in what was a previously opaque, inaccessible budgeting process, Kirst told the Weekly.
Asking districts to create multi-year budget plans that are updated each year with the help of the community has also led to improved long-term planning while also encouraging transparency, Kirst said.
Despite the fact that Palo Alto Unified is among 15 percent of school districts in the state, according to the California Legislative Analyst's Office, that do not receive additional revenue through the new funding formula due to its high per-pupil funding rates, the district is still required to follow the LCFF process. Palo Alto must hold public meetings to collect feedback and input as it annually updates its Local Control Accountability Plan, measuring itself against past years and setting goals for the future. The Palo Alto Board of Education approved this update at its last meeting of the school year on June 21.
It's hard to believe that Kirst, one of California's leading education policy analysts, fell into the field by happenstance.
Kirst, who grew up near Reading, Pennyslvania, was recruited by Dartmouth College as a high school football player. He attended the private New Hampshire college on a need-blind scholarship, graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics in 1961. Attracted to public Stanford's Michael Kirst, an innovator for education | News | Palo Alto Online |: