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Opinion

Editorial: California’s poorest kids aren’t getting the school funding they’ve been promised

Incoming freshman at Westview High School in San Diego pass through a “Welcome Tunnel” greeting faculty and staff on the first day of school.
A state audit found that school districts haven’t been reserving the state funds they receive based on the number of low-income and English-learning students in their populations to address those students’ needs.
(Los Angeles Times)

A state audit released Monday has now made official what many education advocates have been arguing for years: Not all the extra funding intended by Sacramento for disadvantaged students is going to those kids.

Furthermore, the audit noted, the state neither requires that all the money allocated for those students under the Local Control Funding Formula be used as intended nor tracks how it has been spent. In many cases, school districts cannot fully account for how they’re spending all the money. And it’s hard for parents or the public to understand the expenditures because the spending plan each district is required to draw up every three years under the law is difficult for anyone with less than an accounting degree to understand.

Make no mistake, the concept behind the formula is smart, and the money is unquestionably needed. In the 2004-05 school year, before the new formula was put in place, the districts in the state with the highest poverty rates received $653 less per student than those with the lowest poverty rates. Former Gov. Jerry Brown then rejiggered the state’s arcane method of funding schools into the LCFF, a simple per-pupil plan that provided 20% more in “supplemental” dollars for each low-income student, foster student and English learner — the kids who need extra resources to start catching up to their peers — plus an additional 50% per pupil in “concentration” funds when schools have large proportions of such students.

One complaint we’ve made ever since Brown proposed his plan, however, was that he stubbornly resisted placing reasonable restrictions on the money to ensure school districts used it to help the students for whom it was intended. Nor is there any accountability measure to ensure the money is actually helping.

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The expenditures should show results, with the students showing real improvement. So far, that improvement has been painfully incremental. And the criticisms of LCFF have been picked up by advocacy groups throughout the state, who say that though most of the money has gone toward disadvantaged students, too much has gone into general spending and basic expenditures. Los Angeles Unified schools settled a lawsuit against it on that very matter.

The state’s loose approach to the extra funding since it was first allocated in 2013 has allowed districts to blend the extra dollars into their overall budgets instead of using them for the students for whom they were intended, the audit said.

The audit, which looked at the Clovis, Oakland and San Diego unified school districts, found among other things that when schools don’t use all their extra funding in one year, they’re allowed to hold onto it and use it as part of their general funds the next year. That goes against the very intent of the formula and could be used by districts to shortchange the most disadvantaged students in order to beef up general budgets.

Another misuse, according to the audit: The San Diego district used the extra money to enrich library services at all its schools, not just those with large numbers of disadvantaged students.

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The audit recommends toughening the rules so that districts must produce more transparent and readable spending plans, use all the money for the intended students and account for their expenditures. Unused money must not turn into basic funds at the end of the school year. Districts will be using a new template for their spending plans that is intended to make the plans easier to read. The State Board of Education should ensure that the template conveys the information more simply and clearly. The rest of the audit’s recommendations will rely on the Legislature’s willingness to step up and get the work done, and that won’t be easy. Teachers unions, which wield significant power in Sacramento, have generally opposed strong rules governing the extra expenditures, and even opposed a proposal for a state audit two years ago.

One issue not addressed in the audit is that former state schools Supt. Tom Torlakson gave schools wide leeway to use the extra funding for across-the-board teacher raises. We’re in favor of better-paid teachers, but that is not what the money was meant for; it’s for additional, direct spending to enhance the education of students who have particular needs. As a candidate, current Supt. Tony Thurmond said he would tighten those rules. We’re still waiting.


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