Opinion

Brown’s school finance overhaul could be a cruel joke on poor kids

In this April 8, 2015 photo, students are served breakfast at the Stanley Mosk Elementary School in Los Angeles. About 80 percent of Los Angeles Unified School District students are either poor or English-learners, and a new report is critical of how the state’s largest school system has spent extra money meant to raise their academic achievements.
In this April 8, 2015 photo, students are served breakfast at the Stanley Mosk Elementary School in Los Angeles. About 80 percent of Los Angeles Unified School District students are either poor or English-learners, and a new report is critical of how the state’s largest school system has spent extra money meant to raise their academic achievements. AP

The Local Control Funding Formula is Jerry Brown’s experiment in closing the “achievement gap” in California’s public schools separating poor and “English learner” students from their more privileged classmates.

Persuaded by Michael Kirst, an education scholar, his longtime friend and president of the State Board of Education, Brown championed a radical change in state school aid that provides more money to districts with large numbers of “at-risk” students, to be spent on improving their learning.

Curiously, however, Brown and Kirst have been very reluctant to account for how the extra billions of dollars have been spent, or whether they have, in fact, narrowed the achievement gap.

Brown cites what he calls “subsidiarity” – leaving implementation to local officials without tight oversight – and both verbally and in response to lawsuits has said that by providing the extra money, the state has met its obligation to at-risk students, who are nearly 60 percent of California’s 6.2 million K-12 students.

In line with that attitude, the state’s official accountability program, which has been in the draft stage for many months, adopts a “multiple measures” approach that downplays test-based academic performance standards. The program’s “dashboard” of accountability measures prominently displays test data for elementary and middle schools, but not data for high schools. That requires a deeper dive into the system’s layers of information.

The hands-off attitude leaves LCFF’s evaluations to outside groups, and so far, they’ve shown that local authorities, especially those in large urban districts, have diverted much of their extra money into broader categories, such as salary increases, rather than concentrating it on students it was meant to help.

The latest of those studies was commissioned by United Way of Los Angeles and unveiled at a conference by the Policy Analysis for California Education. It delves into how LCFF money has been spent by Los Angeles Unified School District, by far the state’s largest, on the 80-plus percent of its students who qualify for additional help.

Bruce Fuller, a University of California professor, is the lead author of the LAUSD study, concluding that while some of the $1.1 billion per year in extra money made its way into high schools, not very much went to elementary schools.

“Four years into Gov. Jerry Brown’s effort to narrow disparities – and $4 billion later in the case of Los Angeles – the district has mounted over 40 separate programs to lift these pupils, while only a small slice of these new dollars carefully flow to intended pupils,” the report declares.

“The (district’s) rhetoric is pro-equity, but there’s very little progressivity in elementary schools,” Fuller told a briefing on the report’s dark findings last month.

It’s not the first time LAUSD’s failure to vigorously concentrate resources on at-risk children has been pointed out.

A coalition of civil rights and educational reform groups has complained repeatedly about the gap between the district’s stated intentions and its performance and at one point last year, the state Department of Education told the district that it had misspent hundreds of millions of LCFF dollars.

However, the department then quietly allowed the district to reclassify many expenditures to avoid having to redirect the funds back to their intended purposes.

What’s happened – or, more accurately, not happened – in Los Angeles Unified is a sharp warning that left to their own devices, and under terrific pressure from unions and other groups for pieces of the extra funds, local school officials are unlikely to make the LCFF theory a reality.

The only antidote would be tighter state standards and accountability, and without it, Brown’s education legacy could be a cruel joke.

Gov. Jerry Brown said California was facing a budget deficit in the 2017-18 fiscal year, so the state must be careful about its fiscal condition. Video courtesy of California Channel.

Editor’s Note: This column was updated online at 11:25 a.m. March 13, 2017 to clarify that the study was commissioned by the United Way of Los Angeles and introduced at a conference put on by Policy Analysis for California Education.

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