It’s been eight years since then-Gov. Jerry Brown restructured California’s school funding formulas to direct billions of dollars to the state’s neediest students.
But, in 2019, state Auditor Elaine Howle confirmed what critics had been saying for years: State and local tax money allocated under the formula had apparently been used instead to boost overall spending throughout school districts. It wasn’t exactly clear where the money had gone once it reached the districts.
Howle’s findings are reinforced by a new report this month from Policy Analysis for California Education, an independent research center that draws from Stanford, University of Southern California and the University of California campuses at Berkeley, Davis and Los Angeles. The academics also found that a lack of financial accountability allows districts to avoid spending the extra money where it was intended and where it could do the most good.
It’s time for state lawmakers to put an end to this wastefulness, mandate meaningful accountability and ensure that the money is targeted to provide real change. It’s unacceptable that California test scores continue to significantly lag the national average, and that the state has failed to close the achievement gap that divides along racial and economic lines.
Brown’s original vision to address the problem was a good one: Direct more money to the teaching of students most in need of additional help — those who are low-income, English learners or in foster care. Since 2013, extra money has been distributed to school districts with greater numbers of such needy children.
But, from there, even experts like the academics at PACE, have been unable to trace the money. “We and other researchers and stakeholders have been hard-pressed to understand exactly how the money has been spent,” the authors wrote.
That’s because there are no rules to ensure that Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula is being followed. Brown repeatedly resisted attempts to impose accountability requirements. And, since he left office, Gov. Gavin Newsom has also shown no inclination to fight for meaningful change.
The funding formula allocated about $63.5 billion last fiscal year, about a 50% increase from the start of the program in fiscal year 2013-14.
Under the formula, school districts receive a base amount determined by students’ attendance figures and grade levels. In addition, they receive a supplemental 20% for students falling into one of the three needy categories. And in districts with concentrations of more than 55% needy students, per-pupil funding increases 50% for each kid beyond the 55% threshold.
The so-called supplemental and concentration funding is supposed to be spent to provide additional help for those targeted children. One of the best ways to do that would be to lure experienced, well-qualified teachers to work in classrooms with the greatest number of needy kids.
Currently, as the PACE report points out, “schools with high concentrations of socioeconomically disadvantaged students and students of color are often staffed with the least prepared and least experienced teachers.”
The most obvious way to fix that would be to offer salary incentives for top teachers to work in tough schools. But that would require measures for evaluating teachers and salary schedules that reward taking on assignments in disadvantaged schools — both of which teachers unions have traditionally resisted.
It’s easier for them and school administrators in the districts with the additional funding to simply fold the money into salary increases for all teachers without addressing the underlying educational inequities. Until state lawmakers step in, that won’t change.
This problem has plagued California school financing for eight years. It’s time to fix it.
— Bay Area News Group