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L.A. Unified is flush with new money. But how are they actually spending it?

L.A. Unified is flush with new money. But how are they actually spending it?
LAUSD School Board members applaud at the superintendent's address to the L.A. Unified Board of Education and nearly 1,500 principals, assistant principals and other top administrators at Garfield High School on August 8, 2017. (Los Angeles Times)

New state money earmarked for Los Angeles' disadvantaged students has been used in some promising ways so far, according to a new study out of UC Berkeley. But the study also finds that L.A. Unified School District has given its elementary school students the short end of the funding stick — and above all, it points to the need for more transparency in how the dollars are being spent.

The study examined how Gov. Jerry Brown's Local Control Funding Formula is working in the state's largest school district after the first four years. The formula provides substantially more money to school districts for each student who is low-income, in foster care or not yet fluent in English, while giving districts remarkable leeway in how to use that money. In his most recent budget, Brown calls for fully funding the formula, which has been in build-up mode so far.

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It shouldn’t take a time-consuming university study to ferret out which L.A. schools received extra funds and how they’re spending it.


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The spending flexibility has been a contentious issue. After L.A. Unified tried to use a big chunk of the money on services that it already was obligated to provide to special-education students, it drew a lawsuit that it was forced to settle. The extra funding is supposed to provide additional resources for students, not the same ones they always got.

To that end, the Berkeley report found that L.A. Unified has spent much of the new money in potentially worthwhile ways: reducing class sizes in middle and high schools and providing more course offerings in high schools, especially Advanced Placement courses. More students are taking those courses too, although the district's relatively low pass rate on AP exams has not changed so far.

Also in the good-news category, substantially more English learners in both middle and high schools were attaining fluency in English. The improvement is probably in part because the law undergirding the new funding gave districts a powerful incentive: it set new limits on how long districts could receive the extra money for English learners.

High schools also spent more money on counselors and programs to help students graduate, the study found. And graduation rates did rise, but it's hard to say how much difference the money made because the district also lowered some of its standards for graduating students, including offering less-than-rigorous online makeup courses.

On the other hand, elementary schools with large numbers of disadvantaged students aren't getting a significant money boost. With additional funding coming in from Brown's budget, it will be time for the district to spread some of that to its younger students.

It's too early to tell whether the funding is helping on one crucial front: narrowing academic achievement gaps for black and Latino children of poverty. There was no progress seen on their test scores or the achievement gaps last year. But the same is true for performance in AP courses; no one should expect overnight turnarounds.

In sum, L.A. Unified appears to have gotten off to a good start. But in order to know whether that's true in the years to come, the public needs far more information about how the district and others statewide are using the money, and what results they're seeing.

It shouldn't take a time-consuming university study to ferret out which L.A. schools received extra funds and how they're spending it, but the law on the Local Control Funding Formula was written with weak rules about financial transparency. That's ridiculous. The new funding formula is the biggest thing going on in California public education right now, and represents many billions of additional dollars in state money — $3 billion for the 2018-19 school year alone. The public has every right to know exactly how it's being spent.

After years of complaints about this issue from education advocacy groups, Brown's new budget also includes new transparency rules for the expenditures, but only at the school-district level, not for individual schools. That's not good enough. There are signs that legislators will insist on school-level information; they should.

For Los Angeles, it's good news that, led by board member Nick Melvoin, the school board voted to provide far more specific and decipherable information on each school. That should include exact budgets, how much they are receiving from the additional funds and how they're spending it, as well as data about test scores and other accomplishments. In addition to providing helpful information to parents, those disclosures will help the district determine which schools are improving performance so that useful programs can be spread to others.

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