In the first full year of a significant state funding boost, Los Angeles Unified administrators failed to consistently funnel the dollars to the high-need students they were meant for, a new study found.
The report by UC Berkeley found that L.A. Unified officials spent more than half of the $820 million received for the 2014-15 school year on special education, library aides and assistant principals – although the money was specifically meant for students who are low-income, learning English and in foster care, under the state's new school funding system.
In addition, the report found that school administrators lack a "coherent strategy" for linking their funding choices to specific improvements for those particular students, said Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley education professor and the study's lead author.
The report, conducted on behalf of United Way of Greater Los Angeles and funded by the California Endowment, is scheduled to be released Monday as the L.A. Board of Education prepares to debate on the 2015-16 budget this week.
"They've funded a smattering of new positions and they're sprinkling new dollars on the schools, but there's been no conversation with principals about how the various threads of new funding can be woven together into a school-wide reform strategy to lift low-achieving kids," Fuller said.
Edgar Zazueta, L.A. Unified's chief lobbyist and point person on the new funding system, said the district's efforts were "still very much a work in progress" and started at a time that state rules on using the dollars had not yet been finalized. But he defended the spending choices as an appropriate use of the money.
Among other things, he said, the money has paid for new instructional aides for students learning English, counselors for foster youth and coordinators to shift school discipline practices from punitive to more therapeutic approaches, known as restorative justice.
Zazueta said that about 86% of L.A. Unified students are low-income, learning English or in foster care, so state rules allow the use of funds targeted for them for district-wide programs, such as the restoration of library aides and assistant principals at most elementary schools.
Officials made those spending choices in a deliberate effort to offset some of the massive cuts at the district's hardest-hit campuses – cuts that totaled about $2.7 billion between 2009 and 2013, the report noted.
"We would argue we did have a strategic vision: Let's restore funding to schools hit hardest by the economic recession," Zazueta said.
He added that the district stood by its decision to spend $400 million of the funds on special-education students, 80% of whom fall into the state's targeted categories.
Maria Brenes, executive director of InnerCity Struggle, an East L.A. advocacy organization, praised district investments for foster youth, students learning English and more effective discipline practices. But she and Fuller said they were disappointed that L.A. Unified officials had not fully followed the school board's 2014 directive to allocate dollars to schools with the highest needs based on the number of targeted students and other factors, such as suspensions, dropout rates and neighborhood violence.
The district appears to have fully applied that needs test only to high schools, Brenes and Fuller said.
All sides agreed that a key priority was to train principals and staff on how to effectively use the state dollars to boost achievement for their neediest students. The report found "confusion and dismay" among many principals, who said they received little if any district guidance on how to achieve those goals.
Fuller said, however, that district officials had been exceedingly cooperative and open in supplying data and engaging in conversations about the process. "There is abundant goodwill," he said.
For his part, Zazueta said district officials would "take very much to heart" the feedback as they move forward to finalize the 2015-16 budget, which includes $1.1 billion in targeted funding for needy students.