Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has given Los Angeles Unified a one-year reprieve from a ruling requiring the district to spend potentially hundreds of millions of additional dollars on English learners and low-income children to comply with the state’s new school funding law.

In a letter to the district, Torlakson agreed to delay enforcement until 2017-18 of a California Department of Education ruling that found the district wrongly determined that as much as $450 million it spent on special education services also satisfied the Local Control Funding Formula’s requirement for additional programs and services for low-income students, foster youth and English learners.

His actions will buy time and may reduce the district’s financial liability but probably wouldn’t eliminate it. The district is asking Torlakson to reconsider the ruling and, failing that, L.A. Unified Superintendent Michelle King said the district would go to court to reverse it. At the same time, lawyers who filed a complaint on behalf of a neighborhood coalition that led to the ruling said they’ve grown impatient and also would turn to court if the department let the district off the hook.

The district “cannot continue to drag out this process while it continues to circumvent the Local Control Funding finance law,” attorneys for the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates and ACLU of Southern California said in the statement. “Too much is at stake for students who have already been hurt by the district’s decisions.” The law firms filed the complaint on behalf of the Community Coalition of South Los Angeles last November.

The district calculated that it would have had to spend an additional $245 million in 2016-17 and $395 million in 2017-18 to comply with the ruling. Doing so would create a financial crisis and force the district to raise class sizes significantly and to lay off or transfer 2,000 teachers to schools predominantly serving high-needs students, King wrote last week in a letter to Public Advocates and others involved in the case.

Last week, Torlakson dispatched Department of Education officials to meet with district administrators to explore how to avoid what Torlakson, in his letter to the district, called “budget disruptions” the ruling may create.

Other districts and advocates for low-income students, foster youth and English learners – the high-needs students that the funding law identifies for additional dollars – are watching L.A. Unified’s dispute. Federal law mandates rehabilitative services for all students with disabilities, but federal and state funding for decades hasn’t covered the cost, leaving school districts to pay about 40 percent – and rising – of the total. Districts are supposed to cover this expense from “base” dollars under the Local Control Funding Formula – money for general expenses of running a district, from salaries to electricity. L.A. Unified spends more than 20 percent of its General Fund on special education.

The funding formula also distributes additional “supplemental and concentration” dollars based on the enrollment of high-needs students, and districts are required to offer additional services and programs for them. These could include reducing student-teacher ratios, adding counselors in low-income schools and providing training on teaching English learners.

Closely watched case

In L.A. Unified, nearly 14 percent of students have disabilities, and four of five of them are considered high-needs students under the funding formula – about the same ratio as the district as a whole. Apparently only L.A. Unified, among the nearly 1,000 districts in the state, has declared that the bulk of the special education money it spent on high-needs students also fulfilled the requirement for spending for all high-needs students.

The neighborhood coalition argues that by double-counting $450 million in special education expenses, the district shortchanged high-needs students. The department, in a May 27 response, agreed with that position and called the district’s logic “strained.”

L.A. Unified insists that what it did was legal and appropriate. “I’m very confident in the context of the entire budget picture both the Department of Education and the courts will rule in favor of LAUSD,” board President Steve Zimmer told public radio station KPCC.

Torlakson in his letter indicated the district might be able to “significantly” reduce the amount of unfunded obligation if it could document special education expenses and other spending that met the funding law’s requirements. John Affeldt, managing attorney for Public Advocates, acknowledged that some things the district is currently doing could be counted as serving targeted kids, and the district could also redirect existing programs and services to principally benefit them. But he said the district will still have to provide more resources for these students.

L.A. Unified is facing a financial squeeze caused in part by declining student enrollment and unfunded retiree health benefits. This month, L.A. Unified was one of only 14 school districts to file a “qualified” financial status, meaning the district may not be able to balance its budget within the next three years. In 2015, a year after Public Advocates first warned the district it was violating the funding law’s spending requirements, the district approved a three-year, 10 percent raise for teachers.

In their statement last week, attorneys for the neighborhood coalition discounted King’s dire predictions of layoffs, massive teacher transfers and higher class sizes. The district “has many options for how to spend funds more equitably on its high-need students,” they said.

In a report issued last week analyzing the district’s use of funding formula revenue, UC Berkeley researchers led by Education and Public Policy Professor Bruce Fuller noted that spending in L.A. Unified has risen nearly $2,800 per student in inflation-adjusted dollars since 2006-07, before the recession. The district spends only an “unambitious” 6 percent of its total budget on high-needs students targeted by the formula, the report said, and it should be spending money on core initiatives to improve teaching and school climate instead of a scattershot approach funding 40 different programs.

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  1. Manuel 9 months ago9 months ago

    The statement: "Federal law mandates rehabilitative services for all students with disabilities, but federal and state funding for decades hasn’t covered the cost, leaving school districts to pay about 40 percent – and rising – of the total" has me puzzled because, as I understand it, districts have to pay the difference between what they receive in funding and the actual costs of providing these services and that more often than not is more than 40%. The … Read More

    The statement:

    “Federal law mandates rehabilitative services for all students with disabilities, but federal and state funding for decades hasn’t covered the cost, leaving school districts to pay about 40 percent – and rising – of the total”

    has me puzzled because, as I understand it, districts have to pay the difference between what they receive in funding and the actual costs of providing these services and that more often than not is more than 40%. The 40% figure is often repeated because that is what was the orignal commitment:

    “When the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was enacted in 1975, Congress committed to funding 40 percent of the cost of special education, but the federal government has never actually paid more than 18.5 percent.”

    This is from https://www.disabilityscoop.com/2014/02/18/white-house-fund-idea/19120/

    The state also has never picked up the slack and, as stated in the article, the rest has to be paid from base funds (or “from local funds” as put it by the Legislative Analyst Office). For example, the 2015-16 LAUSD budget states that the expected combined funding for Special Education is $544.9 million ($139.8 million from the feds) while the expenditures were $1,581.4 million. Thus the base has to pay for more than $1 billion, or roughly two-thirds of the Special Education costs.

    That’s why LAUSD decided to take nearly half of these costs from the Supplemental/Concentration grants. Interestingly, the presentation made last week Tuesday by LAUSD’s CFO to its Board implied that the costs were merely “renamed” as coming from the base since the “proposed expenditures” in Supplemental/Concentration grants went from $1.1 billion to $870 million. The entire exercise seems to be a shell game because dollars are treated as fungible.

    What is certain is that there is not enough money to pay for everything and the honorable thing to do by the Legislature and the Governor is to admit that they did not want to deal directly with Special Education funding when LCFF was proposed because it is “someone else’s problem.” And that someone else is the feds. Or the local districts.

    So what is a parent who has both types of children to do? Advocate for the Special Ed kid or the neurotypical one? No parent will throw either kid under the bus to save the other one. It is time for California as a whole to stop playing this type of game.

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 9 months ago9 months ago

      Manuel: School Services of California, in a workshop on the revised state budget, noted that the federal government picks up about 10 percent of the cost of special education; the state’s funding program picks up 42 percent, leaving districts with 48 percent of the cost through their general budgets.

      • Manuel 9 months ago9 months ago

        That may be so across the state, but it certainly is not for LAUSD. And it this has been the same for all the budget years I've checked into. I suppose I could go and drag out the numbers from their annual Unaudited Actuals Financial Reports submitted to the LA County Office of Education, but I don't see the point. You can do the same. Or maybe advocates with more time than me can do it … Read More

        That may be so across the state, but it certainly is not for LAUSD. And it this has been the same for all the budget years I’ve checked into.

        I suppose I could go and drag out the numbers from their annual Unaudited Actuals Financial Reports submitted to the LA County Office of Education, but I don’t see the point. You can do the same. Or maybe advocates with more time than me can do it and send you the primary sources.

        What is a fact is that LAUSD has a very large percentage of Students With Disabilities. I have no idea what the average percentage is for the other 976 school districts. But I have been told by many people (parents, advocates, and even a former Board member) that it is an open secret in Los Angeles County that parents with SWDs are often counseled by their original districts to move into LAUSD so that their child can receive services. This is wholly anecdotal, but if it is true, then it is not surprising that LAUSD has higher costs than other districts above those averages cited by School Services of California. The numbers, I assure you, are not bogus in this case.

        I will be the first to agree without hesitation that LAUSD must have, like any human system, problems with some waste, fraud and abuse in their Special Ed program. But this is not sufficient justification to deny that the need exists. Since it exists, why doesn’t the Legislature address this? Is it because the public does not feel that SWDs deserve those services and, hence, does not push for a solution?

        I am sure you remember when services to handicapped adults were few and far in between until attention was put on that through greater enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act. What will it take for our society as a whole to recognize that we need to devote sufficient resources to handle what IDEA was supposed to have addressed? We cannot continue to pretend that the problem is not there.

        I hope that you, as a credible source of analysis of education in California, can help shed more light on this. (And, yes, I know some parents that can give you first-hand accounts of their “interactions” with LAUSD in this regard. Some of them had to become activists/advocates because of their struggles so they might be biased. 🙂 )

  2. Todd Maddison 9 months ago9 months ago

    “L.A. Unified is facing a financial squeeze caused in part by declining student enrollment and unfunded retiree health benefits. ”

    Declining enrollment only causes a squeeze if you fail to decrease your costs. Unfunded retiree benefits are the gift that gives forever…

  3. Jann Geyer Taylor 9 months ago9 months ago

    I feel this district's pain. Districts have an unfunded mandate to serve special needs students. To fund special ed, then, the district has deprived other needy students of services. Special ed students, EL students, and low income students all need more services than districts have funds to provide. We do know how to serve all our students, but we don't have the funds or personnel to do it. I am not certain … Read More

    I feel this district’s pain. Districts have an unfunded mandate to serve special needs students. To fund special ed, then, the district has deprived other needy students of services. Special ed students, EL students, and low income students all need more services than districts have funds to provide. We do know how to serve all our students, but we don’t have the funds or personnel to do it.

    I am not certain our culture has the interest or commitment to the value of education. I wonder if the MacArthur Foundation’s $100 million challenge to solve a social problem could be used to fund a school that served the whole child-medical, mental, food, academics, mentors, special needs, 4-hour teacher-student day with three hours prep and meetings for teachers and enrichment/maker/ creation time/exercise/adequate lunch and free play, for kids, class size of 20 with two adults would let educators show how a coordinated team can make a difference.