A decade ago, California’s political apparatus finally recognized a yawning achievement gap in its public schools, separating poor and English-learner students from their more privileged classmates.

While overall, California’s nearly 6 million K-12 students were not faring very well in state and federal tests of academic achievement, the shortcomings were particularly evident among Latino and Black kids from poor families.

The political response by then-Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators was the Local Control Funding Formula, or LCFF, which provided extra funds to local school systems with large numbers of kids “at-risk” of failure on the expectation that the money would be spent specifically on improving their outcomes.

Tens of billions of dollars have been spent on LCFF grants, but the results have been, at best, marginal, and there’s been a running political and legal battle over accountability for spending the extra money and its effects.

Brown, for obscure reasons that he extrapolated from a Catholic Church doctrine, refused to include an accountability component, saying he trusted local school officials to do the right thing. That hands-off position was, not surprisingly, strongly supported by the education establishment, especially teacher unions.

However, education reform and civil rights organizations proceeded on their own, demanding accountability and using lawsuits, when warranted. One aspect of that effort was a suit, filed six years ago, alleging that the state was violating its own constitution by failing to ensure that children were learning to read, even after drafting a plan to improve reading instruction.

The suit was settled three years ago with a pledge that the state would spend $50 million—a tiny sum in a K-12 school system that spends $130 billion a year—to improve reading skills of kids in the lowest tier of achievement.

On Dec. 3, Stanford’s Graduate School of Education released a study on the effects of spending $53 million on targeted reading instruction, concluding that it brought a sharp increase in the reading ability of third-graders in the program.

Pointedly, the intensified reading instruction relied mostly on phonics—or the “science of reading,” as some dub it—to achieve the results. California, to the detriment of generations of students, had for decades stubbornly shunned phonics in favor of trendier theories.

Therefore, the $53 million program not only demonstrated that even modest amounts of money, when applied appropriately, can have positive results, but proved anew that the key to better reading skills—the gateway to all learning—is phonics.

“The takeaway is that targeted, well-designed science of reading interventions can make a big difference,” said Sarah Novicoff, a doctoral student who worked on the study. “It demonstrated that efforts like this are worth pursuing.”

The Early Literacy Support Block Grant is a tiny step in the right direction of making reading skills the moral imperative they should be in a state so educationally backward.

The latest round of state academic test results revealed that fewer than half of students met state standards in reading and other English skills and scarcely a third were proficient in math.

“This study shows we can eradicate illiteracy at warp speed,” Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney behind the lawsuit, said. “I wasn’t surprised at the results. But I was impressed with the speed, especially during a pandemic.”

California’s governors and legislators have assumed that educational shortcomings can be cured simply by throwing more money into the pot, but it’s clear from the Stanford study that how the money is spent is a critical factor.

LCFF has little to show for its billions of dollars. It’s high time that politicians and taxpayers insist on accountability for provable results.

Dan Walters wrote this column for CalMatters.org.

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