(Updated Dec. 20 with a clarification from the California Department of Education.) The majority of low-income students who stand to benefit from California’s new school spending law have been identified and their financial eligibility has been verified, a milestone in the rollout of the new finance system.
The law, which took effect July 1, aims to deliver substantially more money to schools that serve large numbers of disadvantaged students.
But school administrators say that reaching the last 10 to 20 percent of eligible students remains an arduous and unnecessary data collection burden that they are loathe to repeat next year.
The high-stakes tally involves verifying family poverty levels for the 3.5 million California students eligible for the federal free and reduced-price meals program, which is how the new funding system identifies low-income students.
As of this week, more than 90 percent of students in the meals programs in the Los Angeles Unified, Fresno Unified and Santa Ana Unified districts have had their family income status verified, as have about 80 percent of students in the meals program in Elk Grove Unified. Those districts are among the top six largest districts in the state and among those that have had to go to extra lengths to verify family income levels, because of the way they operate schools with high concentrations of low-income students. Many other districts, including San Jose Unified and San Francisco Unified, completed their tally of low-income students earlier in the fall.
In a move led by John Deasy, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, districts including Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified and Fresno Unified are pushing for a legal change to ensure they won’t have to validate every low-income student every year – a new requirement that the California Department of Education said was necessary to accurately allocate millions of dollars in funding.
“We’d like to see some relief from that requirement,” said Edgar Zazueta, director of government relations for the Los Angeles district. “I am confident that the legislature will revisit the issue.”
Los Angeles Unified is also asking the California Department of Education not to withhold money from the district if its tally of disadvantaged students is lower than counts given about four years ago to the federal government. Those federal counts were used early in the state budget process, when the state estimated the amount of additional funding the district would receive under the new law. The district is asking that the state hold the district “harmless” if the counts vary.
“Let us use the higher of the two (numbers),” Zazueta said. “In communities where we know that virtually every kid is living in circumstances of poverty, we should get credit for it.”
Deasy and other district leaders first made their requests in September for changes in data collection requirements, and the California Department of Education rejected them, saying that with hundreds of millions of dollars of funding for low-income students on the line, it needs accurate, individual student data.
But now there appears to be room for concessions. Updated: While not agreeing to use the numbers from federal data collection, the California Department of Education has indicated that If districts undercount their eligible students in this first year under the new formula, and find more students next year, the state will retroactively count them for this year as well and pay districts the difference, said Lara Azar, spokeswoman for the department.
“It would require a legislative change – but we’ve certainly expressed our interest,” Azar said. “It’s simply a recognition on our end that the first year of a major transition like this is bound to have its challenges, and we want to work with Local Education Agencies to make it as smooth as possible.”
Under the terms of the finance system, known as the Local Control Funding Formula, districts can receive additional funds for every high-needs student enrolled – as much as $3,000 per student once the formula is fully funded over the next eight years. High-needs students are defined as students who are low-income, English learners or foster youth, with low-income being the dominant category of need.
Districts say collecting the data has not been easy.
“The nightmare and expense of printing, distributing, following up, and collecting” paperwork is how Los Angeles Unified characterized the process in a news release.
“It would be unrealistic and overburdensome to require this monumental effort year after year,” said Ruth Quinto, chief financial officer of Fresno Unified.
But after Los Angeles Unified issued a news release complaining about the collection task earlier this month, Chief Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Rich Zeiger told City News Service, “To receive funds aimed toward the neediest students, LAUSD – and every other district around the state — must demonstrate that those students exist.” He added, “Targeting these funds and the accountability systems accurately is at the heart of this new legislation. That is worth any additional accounting burdens associated with this important work.”
The concern over the tally is happening at a subset of schools where more than 80 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals. In these high poverty schools, which operate under “Provision 2” of the National School Lunch Program, the government provides free meals to all students and verifies family poverty levels roughly every four years – which means that the schools don’t go through the annual free lunch application process that is routine at most schools. Los Angeles Unified operates about a third of the 1,529 Provision 2 schools in the state.
Under the new funding law, these schools have had to put in place a new process to collect income information from families. They’ve had to create alternative forms that ask for income information but do not reference the school lunch program. And they’ve found that some families are hesitant to submit their personal information on the unfamiliar forms.
“About 200 families won’t fill out the form,” said Quinto in Fresno, “so those children won’t receive the resources intended for them in the Local Control Funding Formula.”
Through a concerted campaign that includes teams of parent volunteers visiting homes of students who have not returned forms, Fresno has verified income levels for all but about 1,000 of its 55,000 students that attend high poverty schools, Quinto said.
In Los Angeles Unified, the district quickly verified more than half of its 384,000 students in high poverty schools either through “direct certification,” meaning that their families were enrolled in a state program such as food stamps or cash aid, or through a federal data collection that already had been scheduled. Of the remaining 138,000 students in high poverty schools, more than 60 percent have had their family income levels verified, said Nadia Funn, project management administrator with the district.
In San Diego Unified, 40 out of the 68 high poverty schools have submitted some, but not all, of their forms, said Martha Alvarez, director of government relations for San Diego Unified. She noted that in an effort to feed more children in poverty, the federal government is introducing “community eligibility” options in 2014-15 that would allow high poverty schools to provide free meals to students without having to complete a household application.
“The federal government is moving toward being more flexible and feeding more children,” Alvarez said. “The state requirement is being more restrictive.”
But there has been an upside to the data demands. Quinto in Fresno noted that as a result of such a careful tally, the percentage of Fresno Unified students who are eligible for the federal meals program would rise from 82 percent to “at least 85 percent,” she said, which will translate into more district funding from the Local Control Funding Formula as well as from the National School Lunch Program.