Is California’s More Equitable School Funding Formula Just a Scam; Canaries in the Coal Mine

When California changed the way it funds schools by adding extra funding specifically for high needs students, it was applauded as a means to reduce inequality.  But as we start to see the funding sift through districts and schools, many are wondering whether these funds are reaching the intended beneficiaries.

I previously raised this issue as it pertains to the missing $500K  designated for foster youth in Oakland, but Public Advocates is suing Long Beach Unified and LAUSD over the issue and the SacBee ran an editorial “Brown’s school finance overhaul could be a cruel joke on poor kids” making this seem like more than an isolated instance.

We are relatively early into implementation of the new system, the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), and if we are already seeing these issues, this should be canary in a coal mine moment—where we step back and take a harder look at whether this system is working as designed, and fix it if it’s not.

I will dig into the specific cases in a minute, but a little background might be helpful for those who have better things to do than study school finance formulas.

A Simpler and Fairer Way to Fund Schools?

In 2013-2014 California revamped the way it funds schools.  The state consolidated the scores of funding streams, and (to oversimplify some) concentrated school funding in the per pupil payment for students, paying extra money for certain classes of higher needs students.  Districts and schools then had to outline the plans for spending this money generally, as well as the specific plans for serving these higher needs students with the extra targeted funding, so called Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs).

So let’s look at how this is playing out.

Oakland’s foster youth question

I previously reported on the missing $500,000 in foster youth funding in Oakland.  As reported by the Foster Youth Advisory Council, Oakland Unified took in roughly $750,000 in targeted funding for foster youth, but seemed to spend only $250,000 on direct services.

I did dig in on this some, and it really doesn’t seem intentional.  As the money sifts through the various levels, it sometimes mixes with other pots and gets spent more generally, rather than targeted to these students.  That is not to say it’s OK or legal, or any less harmful.  To OUSD’s credit (thank you Superintendent Dillon, or whomever fought for this in the budget wars), it did seem like OUSD was adding more specialized counseling positions, in response to the findings.

This was only raised because advocates dug in on the numbers, how many students don’t have those advocates?  We need to be continually vigilant in following the money assuring it goes to the children it was intended for.  Underserved children are not a high powered constituency and they can easily become casualties of back room bargains, as the bigger dogs crowd around a shrinking budgetary bowl.

The lawsuits

Two of California’s five largest districts are already being sued for not properly targeting spending.   And given what we have seen in Oakland, I bet that many more such suits are just waiting to be filed.

EdSource covered this in a recent article, “Long Beach Unified Accused of Underfunding ‘High Needs’ Students”, describing the situation,

Long Beach Unified failed to account for or misspent $41 million that should have been used to expand and improve services for students receiving extra money under the state’s funding formula, according to a complaint filed Tuesday by the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates. The group filed a separate complaint against the Los Angeles County Office of Education for approving the district’s spending plan last fall.

The obligations for Districts were described as,

In return for receiving additional “supplemental” and “concentration” dollars for “high-needs” students – low-income children, foster and homeless youth, and English learners – the Local Control Funding Formula requires districts to spend the money on these students.

The basic argument is that you get more money for certain students so you have to show how you spent that money to benefit them.  The districts dispute any legal violations, predictably, and argued they were following the “spirit” of the law, spending the money in ways that supported these high needs students most generally.

As a reformed lawyer, I have to tell you, that following the “spirit” of the law usually means you are at least technically violating it.

The intent behind the LCFF is commendable, but if early indicators hold up and we don’t change course, those good intentions may just be re-paving a well-worn path, if not to hell, to purgatory, when our most challenged students are promised and deserve something better.

What do you think?

One thought on “Is California’s More Equitable School Funding Formula Just a Scam; Canaries in the Coal Mine

  1. One part is following the money to make sure that it is spent as the Board publicly announces.

    Another part is following what the supporters of targeted group such as Foster Children have identified as specific programs they want to see implemented.

    Watchdogs of these special groups can never rest but be continuously vigilant. One place to focus is on the audit report of programs earmarked funding.

    The public’s focus is too often short term but the challenge is to see that a targeted program is doing what was promised. When the promise is not lived up to, then it is secondary challenge to find out why commitments were not kept and press the District to explain why a commitment was not kept.

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