Advocates: Start spending new money now on high-needs students

July 25, 2013
Photo from Flickr

Photo from Flickr

Two dozen organizations advocating for disadvantaged students wrote county and school district superintendents and charter school administrators Wednesday, reminding them that the new funding formula directing more money to low-income kids and English learners is now the law even though the initial regulations for the system are months away. The message: Start spending money on your high-needs children this year; don’t make commitments that might encroach on future obligations to these students.

The organizations are concerned that, without clear directives from the state, districts will treat additional dollars however they want with the new flexibility that the Legislature has given them.

The letter is intended to grab districts’ attention as they make final revisions, by Aug. 15, to their 2013-14 budgets. Some districts passed budgets without including extra dollars under the Local Control Funding Formula that Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law in late June; other districts built in the dollars but have not allocated them to the targeted students.

“We believe identifying the current level of expenditures already being devoted to support services for these students and investing new LCFF funds in increased and improved services consistent with the new state priorities in law is critical to a successful transition,” the letter said.

The LCFF will be fully funded over eight years. The formula divides money into a base grant for all students; a supplemental grant of 20 percent for every low-income child, foster youth and English learner; and a concentration grant on top of that for districts in which targeted students comprise at least 55 percent of enrollment.

The LCFF says the supplemental and concentration dollars must be spent “in proportion” to the students who generated them. But the Legislature gave the State Board of Education until Jan. 31 to write regulations defining proportionality: Must dollars be spent on services specifically for individual high-needs students or can they be spent to improve services at a school site or districtwide that benefit all students? Must every dollar every year that the funding formula is phased in – about an eighth of full funding this year – be accounted for, and how?

“There’s a bit of a vacuum in ’13-’14,  but folks must understand that the implementation starts right away,” said Brooks Allen, the director of education advocacy for the ACLU of Southern California, one of the 28 groups that signed the letter. Even without regulations, districts must follow the spirit of the law, he said.

Until this year, there was state funding for high-needs students through prescriptive categorical programs such as the $944 million Economic Impact Aid. Those categoricals have been folded into the new funding formula, and regulations have disappeared with them. The Legislature allocated $2.1 billion to start phasing in the LCFF.

What worries advocates is that even those dollars might now be spent elsewhere, as districts, facing a backlog of needs and getting extra money for the first time in five years, hire back staff, end furlough days and negotiate increased pay and benefits.

“There is not carte blanche” for districts to spend however they want, said Arun Ramanathan, executive director of the Education Trust-West, based in Oakland, which also signed the letter.

Compounding the dilemma, Ramanathan said, is a lack of clarity. The state Department of Education has lumped districts’ LCFF allocations as one figure, instead of by components. Without a breakdown of base, supplemental and concentration dollars, there’s no baseline from which to measure spending decisions moving forward, he said.

“There’s no base and no guidance,” he said.

Some guidance is on the way.

Karen Stapf Walters, executive director of the State Board of Education, said Wednesday that the State Board and the Department of Education will be issuing a guidance letter and a sheet of Frequently Asked Questions to districts within the next two weeks. The State Board “will not want to get out ahead” of a transparent public regulatory process, she said, but the letter will state that “we think the intent of the law is clear, so follow that.”

There has been no decision on whether to spell out each district’s supplement and concentration dollars; hearings will explore this issue. But the letter will likely stress that districts should be open about their decisions, she said.

Ramanathan said that Ed Trust-West plans to monitor districts’ spending this year and to highlight those districts that make wise spending decisions openly.

Budgets can be revised throughout the year. Even if boards make insignificant changes by Aug. 15, they can reconsider LCFF again at a future meeting, said Tammy Sanchez, assistant superintendent of the Sacramento County Office of Education.

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