Funding reform worries potential 'loser' schools within 'winning' districts

June 7, 2013

Until now, the greatest tension over Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed school finance reform has been largely among districts: a political tussle between unhappy suburban and optimistic urban school factions over how new education dollars should be divvied up. But signs of discord in Los Angeles Unified indicate that the same battles over money may eventually play out among “winner” and “loser” schools within large diverse districts – like Oakland, San Diego and San Jose – that have both high- and low-income schools.

While Los Angeles Unified as a whole will significantly benefit from Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula, which steers extra dollars to districts with lots of poor children and English learners, schools in Sherman Oaks and other relatively prosperous neighborhoods in LAUSD may not. Parents there are worried that their schools may be left behind, unable to afford essential programs and services, from summer school to physical education teachers, that other schools in the district will have.

In large part, the issue is over the difference between the base funding per student and the supplementary dollars for high-needs students that Brown has proposed; suburban districts without English learners and low-income students – the targeted groups – say that the base is too low, that it will not completely restore districts to the funding they had before the recession in 2007. Both the Senate and the Assembly have passed alternative versions of LCFF with a higher base, though they take different approaches.

But also at play is the extent to which districts will have flexibility in deciding how the extra dollars for high-needs students can be used – whether that money will have to be spent exclusively on high-needs students at their schools (one way of preventing money from disappearing at the district office) or whether schools and districts can use some of the money for summer school, counselors, assistant principals or computers to benefit other students and all schools as well.

The direction should become clearer soon. Staff and legislative leaders from the Senate and Assembly are negotiating with Brown’s staff on the details of the formula and the restrictions on how money can be used. They want to cut a deal within days so that a final bill can be voted on next week.

Where the money goes

Under the LCFF, Brown is proposing three funding elements: base funding for all students, based on most but not all of what the average district got in 2007-08, plus cost-of-living adjustments; a supplemental amount equaling 35 percent of the base for every English learner, low-income student and foster child in the school; and a bonus amount, called a concentration grant, up to 17 percent of the base, for districts in which at least half of the students are high-needs.

Los Angeles Unified Board Member Tamar Galatzan during an interview by KLCS television during a meeting of the Valley Schools Task Force last month.

Los Angeles Unified, with 70 percent of students classified as low-income and 28 percent English learners, would get a lot of extra dollars overall: nearly $12,000 per student, among the highest allocations in the state, once the system is fully implemented in an estimated seven years. Most of the 784 schools in the district would qualify for supplementary and concentration dollars, but in about 77 schools, serving about 8 percent of students, 40 percent or fewer of the students are low-income, qualifying them for no concentration dollars and fewer supplementary dollars. In San Diego Unified, it’s 41 out of 222 schools. In Los Angeles Unified, schools with less than 50 percent of students in poverty also don’t qualify for federal Title I dollars for low-income students.

A lot is at stake. Among those awaiting word from Sacramento is Tamar Galatzan, an LAUSD board member who represents much of the racially and economically diverse San Fernando Valley. Parents from her district attended a presentation at the Valley Schools Task Force on the proposed funding formula last month that she organized to “start the discussion,” she said.

Parents in her area are particularly anxious, because their schools lost resources when the district raised the threshold for receiving federal Title I money from 40 percent low-income children attending the school to 50 percent. They suspect the district may steer LCFF money away from them, too. “This spring our PTA was asked to fund a long list of basic salaried positions and equipment (among these, part-time classroom aides and a librarian, arts educators, technology for students and staff),” Janet Borrus, a parent at Dahlia Heights Elementary School, with just under 50 percent low-income children in the Eagle Rock area of the city, wrote in an email. “Try though we might, we cannot afford to. We should not have to. Nor should our low-income students be asked to peddle cookie dough to raise money for their own academic intervention.”

This week, Galatzan introduced one of two board resolutions, which will be voted on later this month, providing guidance to Superintendent John Deasy on using the district’s LCFF funding. Galatzan’s resolution would require that LCFF dollars for high-needs students “follow the child to the school site” and asks Deasy to prepare “different allocation models” showing how the money would follow students. Yet the resolution also would require that the allocation models “take into consideration the base level of funding every school needs to survive and thrive – regardless of zip code, size or composition” and asks Deasy to determine what that base should be.

Galatzan acknowledged in an interview the tension of two potentially conflicting goals of directing dollars to high-needs students who generated them under the formula and setting a level of spending for all students exceeding what Brown has defined as base funding under the LCFF.

“There must be a funding floor below which we are not going to go,” Galatzan said. “We as a district must be committed to providing access to a certain level of services that every child deserves.”

The other competing resolution, proposed by three board members, makes the same assumption, calling for a three-year district-wide plan to restore class sizes and provide an expanded school year, enrichment programs, counselors, librarians and teacher raises. This option doesn’t distinguish the specific needs of high-needs students.

Senate, Assembly approaches

Much of the anxiety among suburban districts and middle-class schools within poor districts would dissipate if the base funding per student in the LCFF were raised. Brown proposes, at full implementation, between $6,437 per student in grades 4-6 to $7,680 per student for high school. The Senate’s budget raised this by about 9 percent – between $568 and $688 per student, depending on the grade. But the Senate assumed $4 billion more in state revenue by 2019-20 than the Department of Finance and raised the base in part by eliminating the concentration factor – a move Brown has rejected. Without extra revenue, raising the base would require stretching out the implementation period or reducing dollars for high-needs students – one option on the table that advocates for these students would fight and Brown hasn’t indicated he’d support, said Rick Simpson, deputy chief of staff to Assembly Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles.

The Assembly took a different tack, offering districts an alternative to the LCFF that fully restores their funds to pre-recession levels but does not provide extra money for targeted students. Districts would choose whichever option is better. It’s not clear how much money this new option would divert from the LCFF.

The LCFF’s final fiscal accountability language will be critical. Brown’s overall view is to give school boards flexibility to make decisions while making sure that the spending plan is transparent and dollars for high-needs students are spent on them. The May budget revision says that supplementary dollars “should be proportional to the enrollment at each school site” of the targeted students. It also says the concentration grants should “primarily benefit” high-needs students. The Senate’s version would impose a stricter legal condition, that the extra dollars “supplement not supplant” dollars spent on high-needs students; they must provide extra services and staff.

It’s a balancing act. On the one hand, schools should avoid spending that creates segregated programs that should be better put toward a schoolwide benefit, said Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Oakland-based Education Trust-West, which advocates for underserved students. But at what threshold of disadvantaged students is there enough money generated to spread around, to shift from tutoring for disadvantaged students to an extra counselor for all students?

Districts should have flexibility to use supplementary dollars to create common strategies, say, for all English learners, Ramanathan said. But base funding, not supplementary dollars, should pay for teachers’ raises, he said.

Districts are anxious to restore programs and staff positions that were cut over the past five years. The danger is that money will end up committed long-term, at the expense of poor students for whom the new funding system was intended, Ramanathan said.

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