Schools with fewer needy students decry California funding change
Ah Ram Kim is a 17-year-old high school student learning to read English at a first-grade level with the book “The Little Red Hen.”
Newly arrived from South Korea, she is one of 170 students, who are from Mexico, Vietnam, Egypt, Japan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, at Torrance’s North High who are struggling to catch up.
Although Kim has the same academic needs as limited-English speakers in a nearby school district in Lawndale, North High’s school district, Torrance Unified, is slated to receive less than half as many dollars under Gov. Jerry Brown’s school funding overhaul.
The budget passed by the state Legislature on Friday gives more money to districts with higher concentrations of needy students. That means Torrance will receive a $1,795 supplement for each pupil who is from a low-income household, a limited English speaker or in foster care, while the nearby Centinela Valley Union High School District will receive $4,188.
Across California, 645,000 students are in similar straits. Known by advocates as “invisible students,” they are not enrolled in districts where disadvantaged pupils make up at least 55% of the student body — the baseline for the funding boost.
“The kids we have are no different than kids in other districts, but the available funds for them will not be the same,” said Torrance Supt. George Mannon. “This creates an inequitable situation.”
That disparity is a lingering concern amid general praise for the most significant change in school funding in four decades.
The compromise between Brown and state lawmakers raises the amount of money schools receive per pupil, known as the base grant, while giving local officials more flexibility over the money. For Torrance, it will amount to nearly $9,000 per student by 2020-21.
It also revised the formula for distributing billions of dollars to disadvantaged students. Districts will receive an extra 20% of the base grant for each student who is from a low-income household, in foster care or still learning English, and an additional 50% for each pupil above the 55% threshold.
Los Angeles Unified School District is the state’s biggest recipient, projected to receive $1.5 billion by 2020-21 for its neediest pupils, who make up 86% of the student body. That amounts to $3,359 per student, according to state data.
L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy hailed the budget formula as striking the “right balance” between restoring funding for all students and giving more aid to needy ones.
“Those who have the least need the most support,” he said.
Other districts set for sizable supplements include Compton, Lynwood, San Bernardino, Fresno, Santa Ana and Anaheim.
But Torrance, where 37% of the students qualify as disadvantaged, and 35 other school districts that will not receive as much recently formed the California School Finance Reform Coalition to lobby for changes. They have argued that more dollars should go toward restoring the programs serving all students that were slashed under crippling budgets during the last five years.
Members also are urging for research into how much money is needed to effectively boost the academic performance of needy students.
The state largely based its new formula on a 2008 document co-written by Michael Kirst, a Stanford University professor emeritus and state Board of Education president. The paper advocated the funding boost for students in schools with concentrated poverty, citing evidence of less developed academic skills, lower aspirations and more negative attitudes toward achievement.
But a 2007 Stanford research project by scholars from 32 institutions concluded that spending differences among districts “are not clearly related to achievement patterns.” The project also found significant uncertainty over which programs most effectively boosted achievement. A study this year by the Public Policy Institute of California came to similar conclusions.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” said Heather Rose, a UC Davis associate professor who co-wrote the PPIC study. “Nobody really knows” how much money it will take to boost needy students, she added.
Mannon said that during the late 1990s, the state spent $1 billion annually to reduce class sizes in early grades from 30 students to 20, even though research consistently had found that classes must drop to 15 students to have a positive effect. Follow-up studies have found inconsistent effects of smaller classes on student performance.
“We need to ensure we’re not acting on intuition but on sound research,” Mannon said.
Even so, he acknowledges that California’s complex school finance system is in dire need of reform — and that disadvantaged students will benefit from more financial support.
Jenna Murata, who coordinates North High’s English development programs, said her students need more computers, after-school tutoring time, reading and writing workshops and counseling to be successful. They range in reading levels from kindergarten to fourth-grade yet must navigate a demanding high school curriculum including world history and Shakespeare.
Before the recession, which led Torrance to lay off 500 employees as part of $55 million in budget cuts, Murata said the school had money to pay for smaller classes, more teacher training, laptops, SMART Boards and microscopes for a science class for limited English speakers.
But even as school finances have declined, Murata said, the challenges have not.
“If we had more resources, we could do so much more,” Murata said.
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