Kudos to Jerry Brown for proposing to end the inequities in California school funding – and shame on the districts that seek to fossilize the advantages they have enjoyed for decades now.
Brown is the first governor in recent times to acknowledge what the education community and funding experts have known for years: Our public schools are funded irrationally and inequitably based on outdated formulas bearing no relation to student need. As the Getting Down to Facts studies and the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence acknowledged, similar sized districts with similar student demographics receive widely varying amounts of state support for no rational reason. A recent Education Trust–West analysis concluded that California’s highest poverty districts receive $620 less per student from state and local sources than the state’s wealthiest districts. Individual district comparisons evidence disparities running to thousands of dollars per student.
While Brown’s proposed Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) fails to correct the dramatic underfunding of public schools (more on that later), it does take on the need to distribute the available state dollars fairly based on student needs. It does so by providing all districts the same standard per-pupil amount for all students plus a supplemental amount 35 percent higher for each student who is low-income, an English learner (EL), a foster youth or any combination thereof; it further provides an additional amount for districts where such students are concentrated above 50 percent of the population.
The negative relationship between poverty and achievement is one of the best-documented findings in educational research. As discussed in an influential paper that has informed much of Brown’s proposal, the highest Academic Performance Index (API) scores of high-poverty schools in California tend to be lower than the lowest API scores of low-poverty schools. That is, there is virtually no overlap between the performance distributions of high- versus low-poverty schools. Similarly, it is well-documented that ELs significantly underperform in comparison to non-EL students and bring with them distinct needs that other students do not have, including teachers appropriately trained to teach ELs, bilingual support personnel, appropriate materials for language development and content acquisition, and additional instructional time to learn English and subject-matter content.
Moreover, when low-income and/or EL students are concentrated in the same school, they face a double disadvantage in that they lose exposure to middle-income students, who have a greater tendency to model more advanced language skills, more positive attitudes toward achievement, higher aspirations, and who exhibit lower levels of mobility. Similarly, EL students who are linguistically isolated in schools lose out on learning in an environment rich with native-speaker role models and often on knowledgeable parent advocates who can effectively monitor the school’s learning conditions.
The supplemental funding and concentration components that Brown has proposed are, thus, logical and necessary – indeed, even modest. More than 70 major adequacy studies over the past 20 years show that anywhere from 40 to 100 percent more money per student is required to teach children from poor and lower-income households than is required to teach their more affluent classmates.
Notably, Brown’s LCFF proposal does not propose an expeditious remedy to California’s immoral, unconstitutional and educationally unjustifiable school funding inequities. In the face of the political realities that change will prove more palatable if districts do not see funding decreases, Brown’s proposal creates few if any actual losers over the 7 to 10 years projected for full LCFF implementation. Instead, as more funds arrive thanks to Proposition 30 and an improving economy, the currently more advantaged districts will see their ascent to the ultimate LCFF funding target follow a more gradual slope than the historically disadvantaged districts.
That slow road to funding fairness, however, may not be enough to satisfy some districts that have long benefited from receiving a greater share of state funds for a less needy student population. Instead, these districts seek to hold on to their relative advantage by opposing the new funding system on the grounds that it would be unfair to them, donning the label of LCFF “losers.”
“This produces big winners and losers,” Jeffrey Baarstad, Superintendent of the Conejo Valley Unified School District recently told the Ventura County Star. “The loser districts like mine are not going to share the profits of [new state revenues.] It’ll be sent to the [LAUSDs] of California.”
How conveniently these districts forget that for decades they have enjoyed “winner” status to the detriment of disadvantaged students across the state. These districts could only be considered “losers” if one takes the inequitable status quo as the “just” starting point, neglecting both decades of relative funding inequities and any absolute notion of fairness.
In reality, Brown’s concept is to disadvantage no one but, rather, to rationalize and make fair what has long been neither.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Even with Prop. 30, Brown’s proposal will not address the other major issue facing California school funding: the massive underfunding of public education. California ranks 49th in per-pupil spending according to Education Week and, as a consequence, is generally 50th out of 50 states in terms of the adults per student in its schools and near the bottom as well in achievement test scores for students across the ethnic and socioeconomic spectrum. Adding the $2,700 per pupil that Brown projects will flow to K-12 funding over the next seven years will not get the state to the national spending average today, let alone the level of spending that will be necessary in seven years to provide all students the opportunity to access the Common Core standards.
As a result, the school funding lawsuits brought by Public Advocates and our community partners (Campaign for Quality Education v. California) and by our colleagues in Robles-Wong v. California will continue to play an important role in forcing the state to live up to its educational promise.
In the meantime, California’s failure to address funding adequacy cannot be, as some have urged, an excuse for deferring or delaying a fix to funding inequity. Ensuring the available funding pie is fairly distributed to all based on student needs is a moral imperative that cannot wait.
John Affeldt is Managing Attorney at Public Advocates Inc., a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization that challenges the systemic causes of poverty and racial discrimination, and is a leading voice on educational equity issues. He has been recognized by California Lawyer Magazine as a California Attorney of the Year.