After a frenetic effort to count every high-needs student in the California public school system, the first official tally under the sweeping new K-12 finance law is in – and the results are mixed.
In three of the five largest school districts, the number of students who stand to benefit from the law is lower than expected, a consequence, some say, of inflated estimates, complicated data requirements and insufficient efforts to collect paperwork from parents.
“Districts are going to have a choice: Are we willing to be OK with being somewhat undercounted every year, or are we really going try to develop an outreach strategy upfront?” said Oscar Cruz, president of Families In Schools, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization that works to increase parent involvement in schools.
The long-anticipated counts determine the amount of extra state education funding districts receive this fiscal year and next, and offer a window into how well schools are meeting another goal of the new Local Control Funding Formula – reaching out to families of high-needs students, defined as low-income, English learners or foster youth.
In an informal survey, the Los Angeles, San Diego and Elk Grove unified districts said that their actual counts of high-needs students fell compared to projections used in 2013-14 budget calculations by the California Department of Finance.
On the other hand, in the unified districts of Long Beach and Fresno, the actual counts of high-needs students rose compared to projections. The state has not yet released the actual counts of high-needs students for all districts.
“There is real debate about whether there are undercounts at some schools,” said Kim Pattillo Brownson, director of educational equity at Advancement Project, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit public policy group.
In Los Angeles, some parents balked at filling out newly created income verification forms because they feared the information would be turned over to immigration officials, she said. “The question is do you penalize children because their parents are uncertain of their immigration status?” Brownson asked.
That concern is real, said Valerie Cuevas, interim executive director at The Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based nonprofit advocacy group. But, she added, “The folks that probably have an issue with the counts are probably the folks who didn’t do a good job.”
Under the new finance law, 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.
The law, which took effect July 1, is a signature reform of Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration and aims to deliver substantially more money to schools that serve large numbers of disadvantaged students. But data collection, never simple for a state with more than 6 million students, became contentious last summer as the California Department of Education required districts to collect new paperwork from thousands of low-income families.
Much of the difficulty occurred in an arcane subset of schools that operate under what’s known as Provision 2 of the National School Lunch Program, said officials in the five largest districts. These are generally schools where more than 80 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
Little known outside the world of school nutrition, the Provision 2 schools became a battleground. While the new funding formula defines students as “low- income” if they are eligible for the free meals program, the authors of the law neglected to specifically address how to count students at 1,500 Provision 2 schools, where all students receive free meals whether they are eligible or not.
As part of a federal paperwork reduction effort, these high-poverty schools establish income eligibility for free meals in a “base year” survey no more than every four years. In exchange for being relieved of costly accounting procedures, districts pay the difference between the actual number of students qualified to receive free meals and 100 percent.
But the California Department of Education said that for purposes of the new funding formula, all schools had to provide annual information about low-income students, English learners and foster youth.
This put the high-poverty schools up against federal restrictions. Under federal law, the schools had to create new income verification forms that made no mention of the free lunch program. And they could not use money from the lunch program to pay for distributing, collecting and logging data for the new funding formula.
“We’ve all learned a lot about Provision 2 schools,” said Andrea Ball, legislative advocate for the California School Boards Association.
Less paperwork next year?
But a move to ease the paperwork requirements for these high-poverty schools is already afoot. In response to complaints from Los Angeles, San Diego, Fresno and other districts, as well as from school lunch advocates, Brown proposed data-collection relief measures, which must be approved by the state Legislature.
Under Brown’s proposal, instead of collecting individual student data from every family each year, this subset of schools could meet the requirements of the funding formula by performing a comprehensive census every four years. In the interim years, the schools would collect information only from entering students.
In a drive to collect the necessary forms at the high-poverty schools, some districts launched raffles, held ice cream parties and sent parents door to door. Yet zeal for the task varied. Los Angeles Unified, which has the largest number of students in these high-poverty schools, lagged in its efforts to collect the paperwork, in part because it spent months trying to get an exemption from the requirement. In a December news release, the district announced that it was embarking on the “nightmare” of collecting more than 138,000 paper applications.
As it turned out, the actual count in Los Angeles Unified determined that 81 percent of the students in the district were verified as high-needs, compared to the projected count of 86 percent. San Diego Unified said its high-needs student count was 4 percentage points lower – 63 percent in an actual count versus 67 percent in the projected count. In Elk Grove Unified, the count was 3 percentage points lower, with the actual tally of high-needs students coming in at 56 percent compared to the projected count of 59 percent.
As a result, Los Angeles, San Diego and Elk Grove will receive less state money than expected for 2013-14, in funds yet to be dispersed, and the lower count will be used to determine funding for 2014-15.
On the other hand, Long Beach Unified said it identified more high-needs students – 70 percent in an actual count versus 68 percent in the projected count. Fresno said it also identified more high-needs students – 87 percent in an actual count compared to 86 percent in the projected count. Funding for the Long Beach and Fresno districts will correspondingly increase.
But the state projections were always just that – projections – and districts have been cautioned throughout the year not to plan on revenue until their counts of high-needs students have been completed, said Carrie Hahnel, director of research and policy analysis at The Education Trust-West.
“The estimates were rosy,” Hahnel said. “There was no disclosure of the assumptions used in creating them.”
Among those assumptions was counting 100 percent of students at Provision 2 schools as low-income, even though actual base year tallies showed that the number of students qualified for the free lunch program ranged from 80 to 100 percent at individual schools.
Officials in the Los Angeles and Elk Grove districts said the lower than expected funding won’t cause a shortfall in 2013-14 because they worked from a conservative budget.
But San Diego Unified has a $3.2 million shortfall in the current year because it budgeted for, and spent, money based on the state Department of Finance estimate that 67 percent of students would qualify as high-needs, said Martha Alvarez, director of government relations for the district.
Instead, the actual count came in at 63 percent.
“Don’t penalize us for not getting all of the forms in,” Alvarez said.
San Diego Unified is asking the state to “hold harmless” the district for the discrepancy and fund the 2013-14 budget at the 67 percent rate of high-needs students, Alvarez said.
But Brown did not include a “hold harmless” provision in changes he proposed in his May revised budget. Alvarez said she was disappointed.
Fresno leads in collecting the data
Fresno Unified appears to have outpaced all other large districts by collecting income verification forms from 99.5 percent of its students, said Ruth Quinto, chief financial officer of the district. The campaign was led by Tammy Townsend, the district’s executive officer for state and federal programs, and conducted with “precision” and “determination,” Quinto said.
Collecting information from students at the high-poverty schools drove up the final count, she said. “It was a huge endeavor, and in the end it increased the number of students eligible for free and reduced priced lunch,” Quinto said.
In Long Beach Unified, success in collecting forms from high-poverty schools seemed to vary, in part, by the amount of effort given the task, said Christopher Lund, director of the district’s Office of Research, Planning and Evaluation.
“The principals that took that on and took it seriously had significant results,” he said.
Other schools weren’t as persistent or thorough in contacting parents and collecting income verification forms, and as a result lost funding, Lund said. “One school came in 17 percent less than its base year and that school did receive significantly less funds because of it,” he said.
Next year, Lund said, the research office of Long Beach Unified will take on the task of collecting the income verification forms, which have been redesigned into a form with two “bubbles” for families to fill in: one for number of household members and one for income.
The form will have a bar code that links it to an individual student. Instead of manually entering the data, the forms will be scanned into the system and uploaded to the state student data collection site.
“It’s going to streamline the system,” Lund said.