California’s Search for Education Equity

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In 2012, voters approved Proposition 30, a temporary state sales tax and income tax hike on the wealthy aimed at filling in deep recession-era cuts to state school funding. The measure has raised about $8 billion a year. A white-hot, tech-driven economic recovery has raised many billions more in revenue for education. And although tax collections have dipped recently, the state’s basic budget for K-12 schools and two-year community colleges has rocketed from $47.3 billion in 2011 to a projected $71.4 billion this year.

The bid to fundamentally change how education funds were distributed met skepticism at first because of its aggressive “equity” push. But eventually it found bipartisan support in California's ethnically diverse, mostly Democratic legislature. Lawmakers approved the new formula in 2013, and an eight-year phase-in plan began that fall.

The new system affords far greater local control and guarantees that districts with substantial populations of disadvantaged kids receive more state money — lots more.

This is how it works: All districts get higher per-pupil basic grants that vary by grade level. On top of that, districts also receive 20 percent more in “supplemental” per-pupil dollars based on the number of students identified as disadvantaged. If more than 55 percent of a district’s students are disadvantaged, the district also receives “concentration” funding — tied to the percentage of disadvantaged kids above the 55 percent threshold. Concentration funding is equal to a hefty 50 percent of basic per-student base grants.

The bottom-line increases can be stunning. In 2020, for example, when the formula is expected to be fully phased in, districts could receive a projected basic rate of about $9,115 for every high school student. But a supplemental grant would bump that up to $10,978. A concentration grant would bump it up to more than $14,128 for every disadvantaged high school student above the 55 percent threshold.

Disadvantaged students are those who qualify for a free or reduced school lunch because their families are low-income (about half the state’s students are low-income, as students nationally are), or who are English-as-a-second language learners or high-risk foster kids. Kids in more than one target group are only counted once.

The statute creating the LCFF [Local Control Funding Formula] requires that supplemental and concentration money be invested in ways that “increase or improve” education for these disadvantaged students.

As the LCFF unfolds, complaints are surfacing about dubious expenditures — on school policing or across-the-board staff pay raises that state officials warn should be “targeted” to benefit disadvantaged kids. Not enough time has passed to conduct comprehensive evaluations. Critics are also assailing confusing “local control and accountability plans,” or LCAPs, that districts must create using a state template. The state isn’t collecting data on spending of earmarked money either.

Still, if students start showing academic gains, California’s experiment could provide a blueprint as other states struggle to close their own gaps between affluent and disadvantaged students. If achievement remains stagnant, though, that will no doubt threaten the formula’s future — and embolden those who argue that additional spending has little to do with educational quality.

In the meantime, some educators are seizing the moment — and the extra money — to institute homegrown experiments aimed at transforming school culture in some of the toughest neighborhoods of Los Angeles and Oakland.
(From Susan Ferriss, Center for Public Integrity, 2/6/17)

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