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Commentary: Our schools need more funding — but we also need to be able to make sure the money is spent on the children it’s meant to help

Seth Litt | December 10, 2018

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Steve Lopez’s series in the Los Angeles Times shines a light on two important issues that are far too easy for the public to ignore: The reality of poverty that too many California children experience and the absolute imperative that schools, teachers and principals have the resources they need to fully support children growing up in poverty. The children highlighted in the series deserve better, so do the teachers and the school principal. The stories from Telfair Elementary School show that Los Angeles’s children, and children living in poverty throughout California, can’t afford for us to have a short attention span.

The quick conclusion most of us would draw is that our public schools need increased funding, and that’s true. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, California per-pupil spending ranks in the middle among all states. An initiative to increase school funding has already qualified for the 2020 ballot, where voters will get to decide. But California’s children and schools don’t have to wait that long. Our new Democratic mega-majority and Democratic governor could increase school funding right away in the next state budget.

But even if that happens, our state’s progressive values, which we should be proud of, should demand that we don’t go back to ignoring our most vulnerable children once the headline goes away, the budget is signed or the policy is passed. We have to care enough to pay attention to our students and our schools over the long term, because the truth is that more money for our schools won’t make a difference if the money doesn’t make it to our kids.

Under California’s Local Control Funding Formula, enacted in 2014, the state provides additional funding for students who live in poverty so that the schools who educate them can increase or improve the services that they provide for those students. Schools that educate high concentrations of students in poverty — like Telfair — should be getting more resources. But for the past few years, California has resisted efforts for greater transparency to make sure that those dollars meant for kids living in poverty are actually getting to them and their schools.

That’s right: The public can’t see how LCFF money intended for students from low-income backgrounds is being spent. So, yes, we need to spend more on our public schools, but we also need to know that the money intended for students growing up in poverty is spent on improving their education and their well-being.  The only tragedy greater than our state’s lack of adequate public school funding is the refusal to make sure that the money is spent on the children that need and deserve it most.

One step that our incoming state superintendent of public instruction, Tony Thurmond, could do right away is reverse a decision made by his predecessor Tom Torlakson, who ruled that school districts could use the money intended for English learners, foster youth and students from low-income families for across-the-board raises. This means that rather than spend money on the children it was meant for, districts could, and have, redistributed those resources across all of their schools, including wealthier schools. That’s a reverse-Robin Hood — where we’re stealing from the poor to give more to the rich.

We’re lucky that here in California, Washington D.C. is far away. The students and families we serve aren’t insulated from all the cruelties of Trumpism, but most K-12 education issues are decided at the state — not federal — level. On Election Day, we voted our values. Now, we have the opportunity to live those values. We need to fund our schools, but the truly progressive thing to do would be to also stay around long enough to make sure that all our children are getting what they deserve.

Seth Litt, executive director of Parent Revolution, wrote this in response to the Los Angeles Times’ recent four-part series examining the intersection between student homelessness, poverty and education funding.  

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