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California’s funding formula tries to close the achievement gap for disadvantaged youth — but how is the money spent?

Holden Slattery | March 5, 2018

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This article first appeared in The Chronicle of Social Change.

California Governor Jerry Brown’s budget includes full funding for a state program meant to boost support for foster youth and other vulnerable populations in schools. But advocates are criticizing the program for its lack of expenditure tracking and transparency on how schools spend the state’s money.

The state’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCCF), created in 2013, aims to boost the achievement of disadvantaged students by increasing funding to schools that have more students from low-income families, English language learners and foster youth.

Since 2013, the state has allocated $17 billion in additional funding to schools through this formula. Brown’s proposal would fully fund the formula for the first time by allocating an additional $3 billion in the fiscal year 2018-19.

Advocates who support the concept of the formula say there has been a lack of transparency around these funds and their usage.

“The state of California, while on one hand is fully funding a formula, it is derelict on ensuring that the money is getting to the kids – the kids it was promised to serve – for the extra help that they need because of the disadvantage,” said Bill Lucia, president of EdVoice, a nonprofit that advocates for policies that support educational equality in California.

“Transparency is necessary to know how it was proposed to be spent on programs and to know if it works,” Lucia said. “And if it works, great. We want everybody to know it’s working so that great things can happen all over the state. And if it’s spent in a way that’s not working, we need to know that, too.”

Brown’s budget proposal includes new language aimed at increasing transparency around the law, but advocates like Lucia and an education researcher told The Chronicle of Social Change that it misses the mark. The proposal would require school districts to report on how they plan to spend the money, but not to say which schools received the money and how they spent it.

The Push to Increase Transparency

Governor Brown previously resisted efforts by two lawmakers, Democratic Assemblymembers Phil Ting of San Francisco and Shirley Weber of San Diego, to impose stricter fiscal reporting requirements on the LCFF.

Last year, Ting and Weber sponsored Assembly Bill 1321, which would have required the state to publish the amount of federal, state and local money given to each of California’s more than 10,000 public schools.

The bill passed the state Assembly unanimously in May with more than five dozen supporters including EdVoice, Children Now and Education Trust-West. But it failed to move forward.

Now, a trailer bill in Brown’s budget proposal states:

“Effective July 1, 2019, each budget should include a summary document that links budget expenditures to corresponding goals, actions and services in the district’s local control and accountability plan for the ensuing fiscal year.”

Bill Lucia, president of EdVoice, wants to see more transparency around California’s school funding formula which aims to support disadvantaged students.

Lucia of EdVoice said information that stops at the district level is insufficient and that Californians need to know what is happening at each school.

H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance, said the state has put its focus on school districts and the outcomes they achieve because districts handle governance, teacher placement and other matters that contribute to the outcomes of students in various schools.

Palmer said some services, such as a social worker who splits her time working at several schools within a district, is a service provided by a school district, not by any individual school.

Parents and other local stakeholders can hold school boards accountable by paying attention to their district’s Local Control Accountability Plan, which explains how it plans to spend LCFF funds, Palmer said.

The language on transparency in the governor’s proposed budget is designed to make it easier for stakeholders to hold them accountable, said one of Palmer’s colleagues in a phone interview with The Chronicle.

Samantha Tran, senior managing director for education at Children Now, said that in addition to each district’s plan, the public should have access to subsequent reporting on spending.

“It’s great to know how districts are planning to spend the money but we also want to be able to reconcile how … they spend the money,” Tran said. “Not in a bean-counting way, but to be able to answer the fundamental question of whether those vulnerable kids got that extra support.”

Is the Funding Formula Working?

The LCFF established eight priorities for school districts and 10 priorities for county offices of education, many of them connected to the performance of disadvantaged students. Districts are identified for assistance if one or more student groups fail to meet the standards in at least two of these priority areas.

A December 2017 report from The Education Trust-West shows that 41 districts in California, including Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), have failed to meet the standards for foster youth.

A much higher number of districts failed to meet the standards for students with disabilities.

The state produces a dashboard that shows how foster youth and the other groups of disadvantaged students are performing in individual schools. But without information about which schools are receiving extra funding and how much, it is not apparent whether the influx of money improves outcomes in schools.

Research and reports on whether LCFF is working have generated mixed results. A CalMatters analysis published last June found limited success with its goal of closing the achievement gap between these students and their peers.

At the University of California-Berkeley, Bruce Fuller has been researching the law’s effectiveness. His most recent report, completed in July and currently awaiting peer review, shows that, in LAUSD, the funds made their way to high schools hosting more disadvantaged students. But when it came to funding elementary schools, LAUSD officials showed little consideration for how many disadvantaged students were in the schools.

Research by UC-Berkeley’s Rucker Johnson and Sean Tanner, published last month, found that the LCFF-funded increases in school district revenue helped raise graduation rates by 6.1 percentage points for students from low-income families. It also increased graduation rates by 5.3 percentage points for the general population of students.

“The country is watching as it is anticipated that, if successful, the new school finance measure may lead other states to adopt similar legislation. Time will tell,” Johnson and Tanner concluded in their report.

Holden Slattery wrote this article for The Chronicle of Social Change, a national news outlet that covers issues affecting vulnerable children, youth, and their families. Sign up for their newsletter or follow The Chronicle of Social Change on Facebook or Twitter.

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