Push for deferral reform

Given a choice between school funding cut and funding delayed, districts until now have preferred late payments, known as deferrals. They now total about $10.4 billion or 30 percent of state funding for K-12 and community colleges. While bailing out the state short-term, they have created cash flow havoc for charter schools and for many of the state’s nearly 1,000 districts.

Many, but not all. Basic aid districts – those that fund their schools totally from their own property taxes – and those districts more dependent on property taxes than state dollars for their Proposition 98 funding have largely escaped the impact of deferrals. But those districts with small tax bases that rely on state revenues for most of their money have gotten hit disproportionately hard.* That’s because deferrals only affect the state revenue portion of a district’s total funding. And districts most affected tend to serve large numbers of poor children,

Districts with large percentages of low-income students tend to have the largest percentages of low-income students. Click to enlarge. (Source: Stephen Rhoads)
Districts with large percentages of low-income students tend to have the largest deferrals per student. Click to enlarge. (Source: Stephen Rhoads)

according to Stephen Rhoads, a policy consultant for school districts who is working with State Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod, a Democrat from San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties, on the issue.

Negrete McLeod is sponsoring SB 1491, the Fairness in Education Deferral Funding Act. For future deferrals, it would require that the state pay the interest on the money that districts and charter schools have to borrow because of the deferral. And it would spread the cost of the deferral equally among districts on a per-student basis, so districts funded largely by property taxes would share the pain. Districts serving mostly low-income students would get an extra break.

That’s fine and good, you might say, but isn’t Gov. Jerry Brown promising to wipe out K-14 deferrals over the next four years, if his temporary tax initiative, which would raise the sales tax and income tax on the wealthy, passes? Yes, Brown’s first priority for the extra money would be to pay down the state’s “wall of debt,” starting with eliminating $2.4 billion of the late payments to school districts and community colleges, next year.

But if the tax initiative fails (the latest Public Policy Institute of California poll shows it favored by just over 50 percent of voters), Brown is proposing to cut Proposition 98 funding by $4.8 billion or about $450 per student. If he’s serious, then once again districts may be faced with a familiar choice: a cut or a deferral, in which districts budget the spending but don’t receive the money from the state until the next fiscal year, borrowing from the outside market if they can’t borrow internally. If that happens, then Negrete McLeod’s bill would kick in.

Those districts with small property tax bases, relying more on state revenue to fund schools, get hit hardest by deferrals. Clike to enlarge. (Source: Stephen Rhoads)
Those districts with small property tax bases, relying more on state revenue to fund schools, get hit hardest by deferrals. Click to enlarge. (Source: Stephen Rhoads)

In a comparison of four districts, Rhoads illustrates the disparate effects that deferrals have had on poor districts. Take San Bernardino Unified (one of Rhoads’ clients), where 87 percent of students’ family incomes qualify for free or reduced lunches, and Capistrano Unified, where only 20 percent do; both serve 51,000 students. Because of Capistrano’s strong property tax base, it relies on the state for only $386 per student of its revenue limit, with $174 per student of that deferred. San Bernardino gets $4,783 per student from state revenue, with $2,149 deferred – a huge burden.

Although SB 1491 would apply only to future deferrals, Rhoads created worksheets to illustrate the impact had the bill been in effect today, for $8.6 billion of revenue-limit deferrals. By spreading deferrals uniformly, per student, among all districts, then giving added help to low-income districts, San Bernardino Unified would have seen the amount of money deferred go from $110 million to $72 million or from $2,149 per student to $1,401. Capistrano’s deferrals would have increased from $174 per student to $1,327, which would have been more than it gets in state revenue – and probably grist for litigation. Fresno Unified would have seen $143 million in deferrals drop by $43 million or $612 per student.

There have also been $900 million in deferrals in funding of categorical programs.

* A school district’s allotment of unrestricted dollars – its revenue limit – is funded by a combination of property taxes and state revenue. Because of Proposition 13 restrictions on increasing property taxes, state revenues now comprise about two-thirds of Proposition 98 funding, but the proportion varies from district to district.

Racial disparity in school discipline

In nine out of California’s ten largest school districts African American and Hispanic students are suspended and expelled at rates far exceeding their numbers, according to newly released data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Suspensions and expulsions by race & ethnicity in Los Angeles Unified. (Source:  U.S. Dept. of Education) Click to enlarge.
Suspensions and expulsions by race & ethnicity in Los Angeles Unified. (Source: U.S. Dept. of Education) Click to enlarge.

In San Francisco, where African American students compose 11.9 percent of the total enrollment, they accounted for 42.5 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 60 percent of all expulsions. Hispanic students make up 24.6 percent of the student population in Capistrano School District, yet they received 46.3 percent of out-of-school suspensions and, although there were only five expulsions, all were Hispanic students. [Click here for look at all ten districts].

Nationwide, African American students make up 18 percent of the students in the Civil Rights Data Collection [CRDC] sample, but accounted for 35 percent of suspensions and 39 percent of expulsions. The survey included more than 72,000 schools serving about 85 percent of the nation’s kindergarten through twelfth grade students.

“The undeniable truth is that the everyday educational experience for many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise,” said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a written statement.  “It is our collective duty to change that.”

Duncan and Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali released the data Tuesday afternoon at Howard University, in Washington, D.C. It covered the 2009-10 school year.  The Department had been issuing discipline data every two years, but it was suspended during the George W. Bush administration.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights praised the Department of Education for resuming the data collection and release as the first step toward investigating districts that may be violating federal civil rights law. “Instead of creating equal opportunities for all of our students to thrive, too many schools are still stuck in an educational caste system,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference, who pledged to support the Department’s efforts to enforce the law.

The information is especially useful in California, where districts are required to report the number of suspensions and expulsion but don’t have to disaggregate the data. “We know that looking at this data is essential to understanding what’s going on in any specific school district or school site,” said Diana Tate Vermeire, director of the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Northern California.

Tate Vermeire sees a shift among the public and advocacy organizations to do something about the bias indicated by the data. “There’s never been a concerted effort to look at the issue of over-disciplining students,” she said, “and I think the tide is changing as there is more research tying disproportionate discipline to increased dropout rates and to poor grades.”

California legislators have introduced seven bills this session aimed at providing alternatives – or, what some advocates describe as “common sense” approaches – to dealing with student behavior problems.  Although federal and state law require students to be expelled for specific actions that fall under “zero tolerance” policies, administrators have wide discretion for all other behaviors, and that’s the area the bills address.

California zero tolerance policy. (Source: ACLU of northern California) Click to enlarge.
California zero tolerance policy. (Source: ACLU of northern California) Click to enlarge.

Under SB 1235 by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), schools that suspend 25 percent or more of their students, “or a numerically significant racial or ethnic subgroup of that enrollment,” during one academic year would have to implement research-backed strategies aimed at changing the behaviors that lead to suspensions.  [Click here for list of all the bills].

Steinberg acknowledged that sometimes schools have to take the most severe action in order to protect students, faculty and staff, but warned that when those punishments are overused for minor infractions they can backfire. “When students are kicked out of school, they lose valuable class time and are more likely to fall behind, drop out and get into even more trouble on the streets.”

So many students are affected in some low-income communities that when the California Endowment asked residents in fourteen neighborhoods what they would change in order to improve the health and education of young people, high levels of harsh school discipline came up in nine of those neighborhoods.

“We know that it’s important to hold kids accountable, but it’s more important to prevent the behavior by teaching conflict resolution and other approaches that are more positive,” said Mary Lou Fulton, senior project manager at the California Endowment.  A pilot program run by Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, which focuses on making amends or restitution for harm caused to people or the school, and working out conflicts non-violently, has reduced suspensions at Oakland’s Cole Middle School by 87 percent.  The results were so powerful that it’s expanding throughout the district.

The American Psychological Association has been promoting restorative justice for several years, especially an Association task force found no evidence that zero tolerance programs make schools safer or improve the school climate.

District officials need to ask themselves if the approach to school discipline they’re using is getting better result for the students and the schools, said Fulton.  “If it’s not helping students succeed, then why continue to go down this path?  There are so many difficult problems in California education.  This is something that can be solved; we know how to fix it.”

So many students are hurting; listen and learn from their views

As I wake each morning, I tell myself, “Thank you, God, for another day; may I encounter smiles on people’s faces.” I walk to school and I run into a lot of my fellow students. Sadly, I can tell some are hurting inside. I wonder about their stories and if they receive help at school rather than just being taught.

Lately, there have been many articles in the news media about school dropout and truancy rates. Schools have improved, but some issues remain. Programs are being implemented to solve the problems, but what about the students’ opinions? After all, we know what it’s like in school, what is and isn’t working. Rather than just hearing us out, why can’t actions include our opinions?

I have been in the shoes of these students, wondering and asking myself questions daily. In elementary school, I wondered why students were given differing resources and why some didn’t receive any at all. For example, it was a given that English learners needed assistance, but others who had the same reading comprehension level as English learners were not given the necessary help just because they were not “classified” as English language learners. I also wondered why some students would constantly get in trouble and be suspended continuously, and why there wasn’t much done to help them stay in school and improve.

Years passed as I transitioned to middle school. The issues and disagreements became physical, harmful fights. The faces of students I once knew in elementary school drifted away. I had no clue who my old classmates had become. I wondered if they were OK, if they attended school, and if they were accomplishing their goals.

Now, as a senior in high school, I have seen a great number of students drop out for various reasons. Watching this happen not only affected me, but it made my community unhealthy.

I see so much talent in these students. Some students are unable to know their talents in school because they feel there is no point in going to class if they are just going to be sent out of the classroom. Of course, it may be reasonable to send out a student for acting up, but it is also reasonable to find out why the student is acting up in the first place.

Since freshman year, I have been involved with groups like Californians For Justice, a student-led racial justice organization working for better schools and lower dropout rates. I have also become involved in Building Healthy Communities, a campaign of the California Endowment whose goal is to support the development of communities where kids and youth are healthy, safe, and ready to learn.

In Building Healthy Communities, I participate in Project SUCCESS (Students United to Create a Climate of Engagement, Support and Safety), where our focus is to ensure that schools provide a supportive environment and reach out to help students stay on target to graduate. Whether it is listening to the issues happening at home, hearing the reasons that lead students to fight, or helping students think of better ways to solve conflicts, we should see more students staying in school, not more students suspended or expelled. We need to keep students in school and see them move on to graduation instead of watching them fail.

These programs have helped me build the skills I didn’t know I had inside. Most of all, they help my voice grow and be heard.

The youth voice is worth listening to. We are the most affected by these issues, and we must build a voice with several ideas to find solutions.

We might be portrayed as just “kids,” but people always leave out the fact that we are “just kids with answers.” Why else would we give up our Friday nights, our weekends, and even our holidays to discuss how we can help improve education and keep our peers in school? Our voices must be heard, too.

Miriam Hernandez is a senior at Roosevelt High School in Fresno and a student campaign chair with Californians for Justice (CFJ), which is part of the Campaign for Quality Education.

Senators: Don’t jam us on formula

Senators on the Budget and Fiscal Review Committee generally praised the rationale and framework of Gov. Brown’s proposal to overhaul school funding in a four-hour hearing Thursday but questioned the details, timing, and the disparate financial impacts on school districts. One message came across clearly: They won’t be rushed into adopting Brown’s weighted student formula.

“These are worthwhile approaches, but I am troubled we are moving quickly without knowing the full impact,” said Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach. He and others called for turning the governor’s budget item into a full-blown policy bill – code for a two-year process. Brown wants the changes adopted now, so they can begin to be incorporated in next year’s budget.

Brown proposes a six-year transition, in which districts would receive a base amount per student, with substantial extra dollars for every English learning and low-income student. He would abolish nearly all categorical programs – funded programs for designated purposes, like class-size reduction and career technical education – and let districts spend all of the dollars however they see fit. (Go here to see how the formula would work.)

Districts with few disadvantaged students would receive little supplemental money, but the Brown administration is projecting that the base would rise over six years from $4,920 to about $7,000 as additional revenue from a revived economy flows into Proposition 98. Districts with large numbers of targeted kids could get $3,000 to $5,000 per student in addition to the base.

Extra funding for disadvantaged students is “the right, just, and morally responsible approach for the youth of California,” testified Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy, for it recognizes that program costs for English learners and low-income students are higher. And adding even more money to districts with concentrations of poverty is necessary, Deasy said, “to break the cycle of poverty.”’

Plan needs more work

But Deasy also had plenty of suggestions for changing the weighted student funding formula. His and others’ criticisms included the following areas:

What does “hold harmless” mean? Brown wants to start slowly, redistributing 5 percent of the weighted formula to poor districts next year. He’d guarantee that no district would get less money than they get now – but only for next year. Beyond that, when the formula really kicks in (15 percent in 2013-14, 40 percent in 2014-15), he’d count on new Prop 98 money to make the “loser” districts whole.

But, said Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, “we are struggling to get revenue  projections over the next six months, not to mention the next six years. Six years ago (budget estimates) were projecting growth of $1,000 per pupil. We are rather wide of that mark …” he said with understatement.

Brown is starting with a low base of $4,920, with no assurance that all districts would restore money lost since 2008 by the time the formula is fully phased in. But Nick Schweizer, budget manager for education with the Department of Finance, said that Prop 98 revenues should be enough to cover nearly all districts’ yearly COLAs. If revenues fell short, the administration would adjust the formula.

Formula adjustments: Elementary, unified, and high school districts currently receive different funding allocations per grade out of recognition that older students, who need to take labs, are more expensive to educate. Brown’s weighted formula doesn’t differentiate by grade, although Schweizer said the administration would consider a change.

Schweizer was less open to the idea of a regional cost adjustment, which Simitian and Committee Chairman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, pushed. A 2008 version of a weighted student formula, co-authored by current President of the State Board of Education Michael Kirst, did include a regional cost of living factor. Since 85 percent of a district’s budget goes to personnel, regional costs of living are a huge factor for districts in high-cost areas, Simitian said. Heather Rose, an associate professor at the University of California-Davis, and co-author of a 2008 study on California funding formulas, reinforced that, telling the Budget Committee that overall wages in Santa Clara County were 54 percent higher than in the North Coast and 32 percent higher for teachers, reflecting a need to compete in the local marketplace.

Schweizer said that low-cost rural regions have complicating factors, too, like high busing expenses; determining which factors affect regions is complicated. That prompted Leno to remark, “Just because you don’t know, you should not ignore, throw up your hands and say you cannot deal with the complexity.”

Busing students to school is currently a $500 million categorical program. Brown would preserve it one more year, then throw it into the mix, along with other categoricals. Districts without large numbers of poor students would lose most of the funding. Both Deasy, an urban superintendent, and Sen. Noreen Evans, who represents rural Northern California, oppose that idea. Busing is “fundamental to students’ civil rights and access to school,” Deasy said.

Accountability question: Brown would impose no requirements on how districts spent the extra dollars for disadvantaged students. He is proposing to hold districts accountable for results, and has charged the State Board of Education to come up with new measures, beyond state standardized test scores, within the next year. Schweizer said that districts that raise achievement and meet targets would get 2.5 percent funding rewards, starting in 2013-14.

But some senators and the Legislative Analyst’s Office were uncomfortable with adopting a formula without new accountability measures in place. “I’m not comfortable with the existing accountability system to know how we are doing. This makes me very nervous,” said Sen. Lois Wolk, a Democrat from Davis.

Rachel Ehlers, who analyzes education for the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst, testified that district progress is particularly difficult to measure with English learners, because higher performing English learners are reclassified, only to be replaced with new non-English-speaking immigrants. Tracking individuals with the use of CALPADS, the new statewide database, will help eventually. Meanwhile, “we have a ways to go on oversight before turning (total flexibility) over to districts.”

Hybrid model: Concerned that simply giving districts more dollars for disadvantaged children won’t ensure that they’ll be spent on them, the LAO recommends that the Legislature consider block grants, which allow discretion over money for broad purposes with audits and public hearings to ensure the intent is followed. Assemblymember Julia Brownley, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, takes this approach, using different weights, in AB 18, a weighted formula bill she’s been working on for a year. Besides a basic all-purpose amount, the bill would have a block grant for teacher training and development and an equity fund, directing dollars to English learners and low-income children. Brownley would consider setting aside money for adult and career technical education.

At the hearing, a dozen Oakland high school students called for accountability for money that should be spent on them. Their escort, Katie Valenzuela, with Public Advocates, said enforcement should be in place before a weighted formula is enacted. “Needs-based funding does not make sense unless it meets students’ needs,” she said.

Gaming the system: Giving premiums for English language learners creates incentives to overclassify children, who already comprise a quarter of the state’s students, and then not strive to move them along quickly to fluency. “Will you be an English language learner forever?” asked Sen. Jean Fuller, a Republican from Bakersfield and former school superintendent. “The weakness of the model is that there is no real defined exit and incentive for exit.”

In a comment in yesterday’s post, Rob Manwaring, who was a consultant for Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Committee on Education Excellence, noted that the Committee “proposed phasing out the funding for English learners after four years of funding with a full phase-out after six years as an EL student. This type of approach would counter any incentive to not redesignate EL students.” Since three-quarters of English language learners (the latest figure, according to Schweizer) are also low-income, they’d be covered by the formula anyway.

Brown stretches switch to reform

In the first of what will likely be multiple revisions – Finance Reform 1.01 – the Brown administration has scaled back the first year of phasing in its new school funding system and proposes to hold districts harmless from potential losses in revenue in that initial year.

The administration also has significantly lowered the base revenue per student that all districts will receive before tacking on extra money for disadvantaged students. In a memo passed out this week, Department of Finance officials indicated that they’re open to modifying further the weighted student funding formula that Gov. Brown proposed in his state budget last month. They’ll no doubt hear some ideas today, when the Senate Budget Committee devotes the morning to weighted student funding and mandate reform, which Brown also wants.

Brown has proposed sweeping funding changes: a shift in decision making away from Sacramento by removing state controls on “categorical” programs while channeling more money to low-income students and English learners. Districts with high concentrations of these children stand to eventually gain more than $3,000 in additional funding per child – even more in some cases.

Supporters of equitable funding, advocates of a simple, transparent finance system, and districts with large numbers of disadvantaged children support Brown’s plan – at least in principle. Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Committee on Education Excellence backed the idea four years ago, and State Board President Michael Kirst co-authored a formula similar to Brown’s in 2008. There’s also general agreement that the right time to transition to a new system is on the way out of a recession, with increasing state revenue to minimize the impact on “losers” ­– those districts with few disadvantaged children or larger than average categorical funding that would get little additional, or even less money.

The mechanics of getting the formula right are difficult, however, and the policy issues are complex. (Should some categorical programs, such as adult ed or Career Technical Education, get protected funding?) Complicating Brown’s timing is his plan to use much of the money from a $6.8 billion tax increase to pay down debts that the state owes schools, so there will be little new money for the classroom in the first few years.

Brown had proposed to phase in the weighted student funding formula, starting in 2012-13 in 20 percent increments over 5 years to soften the impact (80 percent of a district’s funding would be done the old way in the first year, with 20 percent under a weighted formula, then 60-40 in the second  year, and so on).

But now he is proposing to start with only 5 percent of the weighted funding the first year, 15 percent the second year, then 40 percent, 60 percent, 80 percent, and all weighted student funding in 2017-18. No doubt worried that some districts might see less money at the same time that voters will be asked to approve a significant sales and income tax increase, Brown would guarantee to hold districts harmless, with no funding losses in 2012-13 only. Brown is also counting on a healthy increase in Proposition 98 money as the state recovers from an economic recession to mitigate the effect on the redistribution of money during the transition. The Department of Finance is projecting that the Prop 98 obligation will rise about $6 billion – $1,000 per child – over the next five years, aside from the temporary tax increase.

Bonus money in high poverty schools

The biggest change in the formula is the base level funding that every district would start with. Brown used $6,000 per child, which Kirst had used when creating his weighted student formula. But that was in 2008, before schools lost about 10 percent of their funding due to Prop 98 cuts. The new figure is $4,920.

I’ve explained the formula in a previous post, and it hasn’t changed yet. A district will receive a bonus of 37 percent of the base amount for every student who is low-income, as determined by who qualifies for free and reduced lunches, or an English learner (those who are both aren’t counted double). Because concentrations of disadvantaged students magnify educational challenges, a student body with more than 50 percent disadvantaged students would get additional aid, 7.4 percent for every 10 percentage points, starting with  7.4 percent at 60 percent, 14.8 percent extra at 70 percent, 22.2 percent at 80 percent, and so on.

The concentration bonus makes a big difference. A district with a combination of 50 percent English learners and low-income students would get an extra $1,820 per student, while a district with a combination of 100 percent disadvantaged students would get an extra $3,640 per student.

The memo from the Department of Finance said that the governor would be open to making “technical” changes to the formula. Some issues already have been raised.

  • High school students are more expensive to educate but the formula funds all students the same, to the disadvantage of unified and high school districts;
  • The concentration factor – whether it truly is half as expensive to educate an English learner in a district where they represent a small proportion of the student boy – will be debated.

Beyond the formula itself, there’s the issue of throwing all categoricals into one pot of money for redistribution, without protection. As former State Board of Education member Jim Aschwanden notes in a column in TOP-Ed today, adult ed has already been eviscerated in many districts under the categorical flexibility and would likely erode further under weighted student funding. Urban districts that receive substantial Economic Impact Aid as a result of desegregation agreements, like Los Angeles Unified and San Jose Unified, would lose that extra advantage under the new system. Which programs ultimately are protected will largely determine which districts will be winners and losers. Brown proposes to leave out only a handful of programs, starting with special education and student nutrition.

“Under the Administration’s proposed formula, most large urban school districts that serve low-income communities will receive additional funding. None of these schools will receive less funding,” the memo says.

Accountability is another issue. Districts would get extra money for poor and English-learning children, but, other than pressure from parents and advocates, they wouldn’t have to spend the money on those students. The Brown administration has said it would propose measurements beyond state test scores to hold districts accountable for academic results, but has given no indication yet what those are. Advocates want conditions set so that extra money follows the child through the system.

Low college transfer rate dissected

President Obama has long been a champion of community colleges and he demonstrated that commitment Monday, when he traveled to Northern Virginia Community College to release his 2012-13 budget proposal, which calls for an $8 billion program to train students for jobs in high-demand industries.

One day later, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA released a series of reports warning that California’s economic future is threatened by abysmal transfer rates from community colleges to four-year colleges, especially for Latino and African American students. Those rates, according to the studies, are a direct result of extreme racial and economic segregation in high school.

“When you’re in 9th grade we can predict with high precision whether you’re going to be able to transfer from a community college, because of how far behind you’re going to be when you get to community college,” said Civil Rights Project co-director Patricia Gándara, who is co-author of Building Pathways to Transfer.

Transfer rates by level of high school resources. (Source:  Civil Rights Project, UCLA). Click to enlarge.
Transfer rates by level of high school resources. (Source: Civil Rights Project, UCLA). Click to enlarge.

Gándara and her team found that 30 percent of community college students who attended the lowest wealth high schools transferred to a four-year college, compared with more than 53 percent of students from high wealth high schools. The disparity is much larger when those numbers are broken down by race and ethnicity. Although nearly 75 percent of all Latino students and two-thirds of African American students who go on to higher education start at a community college, they comprised only 20 percent of all students who transferred to a four-year college or university.

At the other end, the authors write that “a handful of community colleges serving high percentages of white, Asian and middle class students are responsible for the majority of all transfers in the state.”

In a second report released by the Civil Rights Project, titled Unrealized Promises: Unequal Access, Affordability, and Excellence at Community Colleges in Southern California, the researchers found that the most segregated high schools with the fewest resources and weakest academic achievement tend to feed students into segregated community colleges, where many of them get stuck in years of remedial classes and never advance.

“Unfortunately, the community colleges tend to repeat the patterns of the low performing high schools, resulting in few transfers; this makes a mockery of the promise of equal opportunity,” said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project.

Transfer rates from community college to four-year college, by race and ethnicity.  (Source:  Civil Rights Project, UCLA). Click to enlarge.
Transfer rates from community college to four-year college, by race and ethnicity. (Source: Civil Rights Project, UCLA). Click to enlarge.

Student Success Task Force not enough

In California, community colleges are the backbone of the higher education system, serving more than two-and-a-half million students a year who have diverse needs and goals. Some are seeking an associate’s degree, some a certificate in a skilled profession such as nursing or welding, and others hope to transfer to a four-year college to earn a bachelor’s degree. The 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education includes all those choices and more.

After half a century it became clear that the plan for community colleges needed revising. So last year, the Student Success Task Force on community colleges, established by the Legislature, developed a set of 22 recommendations to improve and accelerate the time it takes for students to earn credentials, earn degrees, or transfer.

Orfield wasn’t critical of the report – “I’m not belittling it,” he assured – but he was unenthusiastic, saying the recommendations tend to tweak around the edges of a problem that needs a full-scale structural reform.  “It wasn’t a call for saying let’s redo the structure of higher education in California because it’s a catastrophe. It means that most of the kids who are growing up in this state aren’t going to have a reasonable chance to get what they need to be middle class families; that’s just absolutely critical to the future of California.”

Even colleges singled out in the Building Pathways to Transfer report for having a disproportionately high rate of transfers didn’t do it by making institutional changes.  It was more a case where a group of faculty and staff took it upon themselves to help students, said Gándara.

“Somebody has to demonstrate the interest; there’s nothing systemic that’s happens here,” Gándara said.  “So it isn’t like the chancellor’s office says, ‘Okay, this is something we’ve got to do, let’s get on board.’  It’s hit or miss.”

Giving Bachelor’s a chance

California doesn’t do too well on college completion even at four-year colleges and universities, according to Beyond the Master Plan:  The Case for Restructuring Baccalaureate Education in California.   First released in 2010, this report was also posted yesterday on the Civil Rights Project website.  It’s co-authored by former University of California President Richard Atkinson.  Among its findings:

  • California ranks 43rd out of the 50 states in the proportion of its college-age population who earn baccalaureate degrees,
  • California community colleges now enroll 40-to-50 percent of all students seeking a baccalaureate degree.

Atkinson and co-author Saul Geiser of UC Berkeley, don’t lay all the blame for California’s anticipated shortage of qualified workers with college degrees on the favorite whipping boys of the economic downturn, the growing population of immigrants and the failure of community colleges.  They point to a decision made in 1960, a time when enrollment in the state’s public four-year and two-year colleges was almost equally divided.

“But in a cost-cutting move, the framers of the Master Plan limited eligibility for admission to UC and CSU to the top eighth and top third, respectively, of the state’s high school graduates, diverting many students to 2-year institutions,” they wrote.

The Student Success Task Force report already recommends streamlining the transfer process and providing incentives for students to move quickly toward their goals.  Orfield and Gándara would add to that allowing community colleges to offer B.A. degrees.  It would create more spaces for students seeking four-year degrees without the added step of transferring.  Geiser and Atkinson see too many challenges to that model, such as cost and accreditation problems, but do recommend a hybrid model through which four-year and two-year colleges would collaborate to offer B.A. degrees.

Such changes may not be an easy sell as the chair of the Assembly higher education committee found last session.  Assemblyman Marty Block [D- San Diego] introduced a AB 661, a bill that would have created a pilot program for B.A. degrees in two community college districts.  It died on the inactive file.

Should we switch to weighted student funding and do it now?

In next year’s budget, Gov. Jerry Brown proposes to rearrange school funding based on a weighted student formula – a concept that State Board of Education President Michael Kirst fleshed out in a 2008 brief. Beyond a flat grant for all students, districts with large concentrations of English learners and low-income students would get a premium of potentially thousands of dollars more per student. Districts would decide how the money would be used. Under the initial plan, Brown would phase in the new system over five years but would not hold districts financially harmless; doing so would require new money or a  long timeline to implement. As a result,  there would  be district winners and losers. Proponents praise the transparency and equity of the new system. Skeptics have other concerns, as you will read. (See an earlier TOP-Ed post for details on how it would work.)

Four individuals who have given the issue much thought are Merrill Vargo, executive director of Pivot Learning Partners, which is involved in a weighted student formula demonstration project; Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution who has written extensively about school finance; John Affeldt, managing attorney of the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates and a leading voice on education equity; and Gary Ravani, a frequent TOPed contributor who is a retired middle school teacher and vice president of the California Federation of Teachers.

We welcome your comments as well.

Merrill Vargo: Why now is the hour for a weighted student formula

Merrill Vargo
Merrill Vargo

Most advocates of weighted student funding think that the reason to do it is that schools are over-regulated, while skeptics point out that schools already have substantial categorical program flexibility – flexibility that was granted, as it often is, as a sort of consolation prize when budgets were slashed.

This points to the first reason why now is the hour to move to a weighted student approach. Every veteran school administrator knows this drill: When budgets are cut, policymakers discover the value of flexibility and local leaders get to make the tough calls about what programs to eliminate; but when new money flows back in, it comes in the form of new programs. Without moving to a weighted student formula now, economic recovery will inevitably bring new money in the form of new programs, each with its own new regulations. This alone is sufficient reason to argue that now is the hour for a weighted student formula. But there is more.

Even critics of categorical programs rarely point out the economic costs of the way we currently fund our schools. Categorical programs are a recipe for inefficiency: Funding schools the way we do is like paying someone in gift cards rather than dollars. Fifty dollars at Target, $100 at Safeway, $75 at Macy’s…. Somebody might manage to spend money this way without waste, but at best it would be a lot of work. In our current budget crisis, we just can’t afford to make it harder for districts to use money efficiently. And the currently flexibility is only a partial – and temporary – fix. But there’s more yet.

As executive director of Pivot Learning Partners, I’ve had the chance to observe what two districts – LAUSD and Twin Rivers Unified, in north Sacramento – have actually done with the idea of a weighted student formula. Both LAUSD and Twin Rivers have made an important commitment that is implied by the reform put forward by the governor, but not actually included: They have committed to creating a system in which the “weights” dictate not only how much money flows from Sacramento to the school district, but also how much money flows to schools.

Surprisingly to those unfamiliar with education politics, this does not result from the current system of categorical programs; school districts tend to spend dollars intended for poor children on the schools they attend – but they balance this out by spending a disproportionate amount of unrestricted dollars on the schools without poor children. Local politics dictates that everybody gets the same amount, even when some students need more. The commitment by school districts to establish policies and processes to do something else is difficult in any circumstances, but it is far easier when people are arguing only about a principle. Once there is real money on the table, this discussion becomes far harder.

So that’s three reasons why today is the best possible time for a weighted student formula.

Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides staff development and policy analysis for educators. She also served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education.

Eric Hanushek: Liberals and conservatives are equally naïve

Eric Hanushek
Eric Hanushek

Weighted student funding has become a core idea of both liberals and conservatives. Liberals like the idea because, by their vision, it would push funding to schools that served more disadvantaged populations. These schools have traditionally engaged in less actual spending than more advantaged schools because they employ more rookie teachers, who come with lower salaries. Conservatives like the idea because, by their vision, it will push funding to charter schools that traditionally have received less than equal shares of the local funding for schools. Both groups see weighted school funding as providing more funds to the schools that they focus upon, and both see this as leading to improvements in achievement.

Both groups seem naïvely wrong. The liberals ignore the fact that local schools have no control over salaries of teachers or, for the most part, over the choice of teachers. Thus, the added funding does not allow them to make choices that improve the quality of teachers in a world where the quality of teachers is unrelated to the salary of individual teachers. The conservatives, focused on the funding from the state, ignore the fact that local funding would not necessarily flow with the child under a weighted student funding system, so that redirecting the state funding would not achieve the parity that they seek for charter schools.

Both positions also rely upon an untested view of politics that would lead to improved allocation of resources if only the actual flows of dollars were more apparent and more real. We have no reason to believe that their vision will occur.

The overall idea of weighted student funding – that some students require more resources than others because they require extra educational services – makes sense at the district level. But, hoping that this creates the right incentives if it is taken to the individual school seems naïve.

The thing that both liberals and conservatives really desire is improved achievement of all students. Thus, it is much more likely that rewarding success, rather than relying on a naïve model of political reaction, would work.

Here is the simple idea (developed in a book by Alfred Lindseth and me, Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses) that changes incentives. Provide funding to districts that adjusts the base amount for each student – disadvantaged students, English language learners, or special education students. But, having provided funding that recognizes different needs to provide additional services, reward districts that promote more achievement of their students. And, don’t reward students who fail to attain higher achievement. In other words, provide incentives for greater achievement and do not reward failure.

Schools will not improve until there are greater incentives for improving student achievement.

Eric Hanushek is the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. He has been a leader in the development of economic analysis of educational issues. His most recent book, Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses: Solving the Funding-Achievement Puzzle in America’s Public Schools, describes how improved school finance policies can be used to meet our achievement goals.

John Affeldt: Money must follow the student

John Affeldt
John Affeldt

Putting aside the key fact that the governor’s school finance reform plan fails to address the woeful underfunding of California public education, the governor’s plan should be applauded for proposing a more rational and equitable finance system than the one we currently have. The most alarming distributional shortcoming is its failure to make sure districts actually spend the weighted funds on the needy students who generate those dollars for their districts. Under the proposal, low-income students and English learners become a convenient mechanism for a district to receive more money to spend “flexibly” however it wants — including on students who are neither poor nor learning English. That is very troubling. The extra funds generated by these students need primarily to be directed to the schools where these students are.

Absent a requirement that the money follows the student, the proposal risks being worse than what we currently have. There are too many categoricals in California, it is true. But let us not forget that among the key reasons they originally came into being were to correct the fact that the neediest and often least politically powerful students were being overlooked by unfettered district “discretion.” More than one educator has privately conceded to me that absent rules requiring funds be spent in equal or greater measure on poor or EL students, districts will stray, pulled by pressures from adults — be they influential parents, effective local unions, or administrators with a different agenda.

This is doable. As Mike Kirst noted recently on KQED, Florida has implemented such a system. And, too, the concept is not all that different than requirements found with federal Title I, special education, and Economic Impact Aid dollars that they be spent on the needy students who generated them.

Like the proposed weighted funding itself, requiring that the money follow needy students to their schools can be phased in over time. This would allow districts to readjust their too often inequitable distribution of teacher quality dollars where typically the more experienced and expensive teachers teach the higher-performing students. If more expensive veterans do not want to move, at least the schools with concentrations of needy students will be able to purchase the extra staff that will provide for smaller classes and supplemental supports. In Oakland, which has been experimenting with site-based, weighted student funding, such measures have helped attract and retain young teachers where before they quickly moved on to the more affluent schools. Shoring up resource provision, including teacher quality, in low-income schools is the only way we will be able to begin to close the achievement gaps.  Only holding schools accountable on the back end — after the funds have been spent and gaps have not been addressed — will too often prove too little too late.

John Affeldt is managing attorney at Public Advocates Inc., a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization that challenges the systemic causes of poverty and racial discrimination by strengthening community voices in public policy. He is a leading voice on educational equity issues and has been recognized by California Lawyer Magazine as a California Attorney of the Year, The Recorder as an Attorney of the Year, and a Leading Plaintiff Lawyer in America by Lawdragon Magazine.

Gary Ravani: Rearranging spreadsheets  on a sinking budget

Gary Ravani
Gary Ravani

The governor’s plan for weighted student funding, sending more education dollars to districts that have more “needy” (based on English learners and low-income populations) students is intriguing. Obviously, students of greater need require more educational supports to have a greater chance of playing on a level academic field.

As noted in a recent TOP-Ed  piece by Kathryn Baron on the Quality Counts report by Ed Week, compared to most states, California already does a pretty good job in this area: “The state’s … average means that poorer districts receive more funding than wealthy ones on a weighted per-pupil basis.” This does not mean that there are not some significant differences in school funding under California’s “revenue limit income” funding program that favor wealthier areas. If one takes into account the per-pupil funding available to “basic aid” districts, the disparities are even greater.

The problem is that California is relatively equitable in how it underfunds the majority of its students. The Quality Counts report places this state at 47th of the 50 states in per-pupil spending, some $3,000 below the national average in “adjusted” dollars. The RAND Corp., as well as others, cite California’s “unadjusted” dollars expenditure per pupil sinking below the national average in the mid-1980s and sinking lower ever since.

However admirable the governor’s weighted funding plan might be (and it is admirable in principle), this does not seem to be the appropriate time to consider it. Being 47th in per-pupil spending may well be the high point for some time. Even if the governor’s proposed tax initiative passes, it is not likely to improve the immediate school funding situation.

The new funding plan proposes to set a base of $6,000 per student with enhancements based on the number of English learners and economically disadvantaged students. This new variable, and possible cut in funding, is to be calculated by districts already being asked to budget for further cuts next year on top of the cuts from the last few years. The weighted plan does allow for implementation over time, but what are the prospects for improved funding “over time”?  Where are there signs, other than the proposed Millionaire’s Tax Initiative that will plug some holes in the eviscerated education budget, that the state is ready to live up to its obligations to its public schools and children?

The equitable and responsible action, before embarking on reorganizing student funding, would be for California to commit itself, publicly and legislatively, to bringing its education spending up to the top tier in the nation, reflecting its international ranking as the ninth largest economy in the world and the nation’s wealthiest state. Only then can all  school districts be “held harmless,” and real improvements to educational programs as well as improved student achievement take place. Without the fundamentals of an adequate educational revenue stream in place, funding “reform” that potentially pits one stressed school district against another stressed school district is all just a matter of rearranging the fiscal spreadsheets on the sinking education budget.

Gary Ravani taught middle school for more than 30 years in Petaluma. He served for 19 years as president of the Petaluma Federation of Teachers, is currently president of the California Federation of Teachers’ Early Childhood/K-12 Council, and is a vice president of the CFT. He chairs the CFT’s Education Issues Committee.

No escaping school fees case

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge drew a bright line Wednesday on Gov. Jerry Brown’s goal of shifting control over education decisions from Sacramento to local districts. What the state can’t do is pawn off its constitutional duty ensuring that California’s children get their fundamental right to a free education, Judge Carl West indicated in a terse tentative ruling. He is expected to elaborate on and finalize the ruling within the next few days. (Update: Judge West issued his final decision, confirming his tentative ruling, this morning. The state has 20 days to respond to his finding.)

The ruling marks a clear victory for plaintiffs who had sued the state and state education officials for failing to crack down on school districts that illegally charge students school fees ranging from payments for sports uniforms and textbooks to lab materials and AP tests. It’s a common practice that has become more prevalent as budget-strapped districts have sought ways to save money – often at the expense of low-income families that can’t afford the extra fees.

State officials didn’t dispute that these violations have occurred; the ACLU of Southern California had presented indisputable documentation. But, reversing the conciliatory position of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Brown administration argued that the state, the State Board of Education, the Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the State Department of Education – all named in the lawsuit –  had no enforcement responsibility. If there are violations, sue the local districts, which have the power and authority to fix the problem, argued the Attorney General’s office on behalf of state officials.

But West didn’t buy it and cited a 20-year-old state Supreme Court decision (Butt v. State of California) that reaffirmed that the state bears the responsibility to see that districts provide an equal opportunity to an education.

West’s expected final ruling will mean that the class-action lawsuit that the ACLU filed two years ago on behalf of unnamed students will go to trial – which Schwarzenegger, in his final days as governor, had hoped to avoid through a settlement. Schwarzenegger encouraged the passage of AB 165, sponsored by Assemblyman Ricardo Lara (D-South Gate). It would have created a complaint process for parents and students who believed they had been charged illegal fees, and would have required districts to conduct annual compliance audits. If auditors concluded that a school district had charged illegal fees, it would be required to reimburse parents. The monitoring was modeled after terms in the Williams v. State of California lawsuit, which Schwarzenegger had also settled out of court, ensuring low-income schools had certificated teachers, clean buildings, and adequate textbooks.

AB 165 passed the Assembly 51-24 and the Senate 23-15 last fall. But Brown vetoed it, saying it took “the wrong approach” to district compliance. It “would mandate that every single classroom in California post a detailed notice and that all 1,042 school districts and over 1,200 charter schools follow specific complaint, hearing and audit procedures, even when there have been no complaints, let alone any evidence of violation. This goes too far.”

Case law and evidence will not be on the state’s side in a full trial. In the 1984 decision, Hartzell v. Connell, the state Supreme Court ruled that that districts must cover the costs of school-sponsored activities as well as regular academic classes. Allowable charges are few, such as arts materials that students take home.

Assuming a quick verdict, Brown could negotiate different terms for a monitoring system, or perhaps the State Board and Department of Education could establish monitoring through regulations.

How weighted funding would work

Districts in which nearly 90 percent of students are either low-income or English learners (such as Long Beach Unified and Los Angeles Unified) will get $3,000 more per student than districts where only 20 percent of students are disadvantaged (like Poway and Irvine) – once the new system of school funding that Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing is fully phased in.

A district with 90 percent disadvantaged students would get $9,596 per student, compared with $6,444 for a district with only a 20 percent combination of English learners and low-income children. The formula assumes base funding of $6,000.

Brown’s weighted pupil funding system would be a radical departure from the current system, in which districts’ revenues differ sharply and often irrationally, based on allocations of dozens of specially designated “categorical” programs, often using unfair or outdated formulas. Brown would end all but a handful of categoricals – special education funding the biggest exception – and reallocate the money based on districts’ concentrations of the disadvantaged.

Brown’s proposal closely matches methodology developed four years ago in a brief (definitely worth reading) co-authored by State Board President Michael Kirst with then law professor and now state Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu and former state Secretary of Education Alan Bersin. The primary difference is that their formula also factored in regional costs of living, while Brown, in an effort to make it simpler, does not.

“We propose a new system that is more rational, more equitable, and, we believe, politically feasible,” the authors said in their introduction. Their method certainly is the former; it’s too early to say whether legislators, once they do district-by-district calculations, will adopt it. However, the intent, by phasing it in over five years, is to ensure that districts won’t get any less money than they receive now.

The formula, as provided by the state Department of Finance, would work this way: **

The state would calculate the total unduplicated number of low-income students, English learners, and students who are are both (more than 80 percent of English learners are also poor) for each district. “Low income” would be defined as eligible for the federal free and reduced price lunch program – more than half of the state’s students.

The formula adds a straight 37 percent of the base grant for districts in which the total number of disadvantaged students is under 50 percent.

Example: A district with 20 percent disadvantaged students would receive 20% times 37% times $6,000, or $444 (7.4 percent) above the $6,000 base rate. For districts with 40 percent disadvantaged students, the amount would be $888.

Districts where more than half of students are disadvantaged would get proportionally more money – an increase of 7.4 percentage points for every 10 percent above 50 percent.

The rationale is that concentrations of disadvantaged students create extra learning challenges. Citing studies, the Kirst-Bersin-Liu brief notes, “Importantly, students in high-poverty schools face a double disadvantage arising not only from their own poverty but also from the poverty of their peers.”

In districts with 60 percent disadvantaged, the premium increases 7.4 percentage ponts to 44.4 percent, resulting in $1,598 per student above the $6,000 base rate.

At 80 percent concentration, the premium rises to 59.2 percent times .80 for an additional $2,842 per student.

At 90 percent, it’s 66 percent times .90 for $3,596.

Base funding is defined in the brief as covering the basic costs of education (“textbooks, safe and clean facilities and qualified teachers and other personnel”). However, K-12 funding has been cut substantially since 2008, when the brief was written. Nick Schweizer, the state Department of Finance’s budget manager for education, cautioned in an email that the base amount may have to be scaled back.

Money wouldn’t follow the child

Other key factors:

  • The formula does not differentiate between elementary, unified districts, and higher-cost high school districts as the current system does. That will likely be one point of contention.
  • For now, at least, per-student funding will be allocated to districts and not to school sites, as some advocates of weighted funding argue should be the case. School site funding has been tried in Oakland and is being piloted in Los Angeles Unified and Twin Rivers Unified under the project Strategic School Funding for Results. It ensures that extra funding gets to low-income schools. But districtwide, weighted student funding can be  harder to administer and can put the squeeze on schools with high concentrations of higher paid, veteran teachers.

“What we are proposing is not overly complex and is doable,” Kirst said in an interview. “It’s a better system than what we have.”

  • Along with special education, the only categoricals that will be excluded from the formula will be federally funded school nutrition; after-school programs, because voters would have to change funding for them under Propostion 49; preschool funding; and money for the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA), because it stems from a legal settlement with the California Teachers Assn.
  • Districts would have complete flexibility over how the extra money for poor kids and English learners would be spent. They could create financial incentives to attract the best teachers to come to low-performing schools, hire aides, lower class sizes, extend the school day, or focus on staff training. Or they could splurge on football uniforms or spread dollars evenly on needy and non-poor students.

In the mid-’90s, with a spurt in state revenues, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson created the class-size reduction program as a new categorical to prevent the extra money from ending up as pay raises for teachers and administrators.

Kirst-Bersin-Liu argue that preceded the adoption of state curriculum standards and assessments. If districts are going to be held accountable for results, then districts should have autonomy and flexibility to determine how best to achieve them.

Brown calls for the adoption of new, unspecified local accountability measures that would give parents and community members more access to information. The assumption is that they would become a countervailing force to ensure that money is spent wisely.

Advocates for low-income students and English learners will nonetheless argue that there needs to be more assurance – and tighter rules – to ensure that money for disadvantaged students actually will be spent on them.


** Here is the detailed formula, as provided by the Department of Finance, for those mathematically inclined:
For districts with equal to or less than 50% of students Free and Reduced Price Lunch (FRPL) eligible or English learners (ELs):
• Base grant (BG) + BG * 0.37 * % FRPL or EL
The FRPL and EL counts are unduplicated, so that a district with 20% FRPL only, 10% EL only, and 5% both FRPL and EL would have a % FRPL or EL = 35% (the 5% both FRPL and EL would not be counted twice in the formula).
• So, with BG = $6k and a district with % FRPL or EL = 40%, the formula would provide: 6,000 + 6,000 * 0.37 * 0.4 = $6,888 per pupil.
For districts with greater than 50% of students FRPL eligible or ELs:
• BG + BG * 2 * 0.37 * (% FRPL or EL)2
• For a district with % FRPL or EL = 60%, the formula would provide: 6,000 + 6,000 * 2 * 0.37 * 0.6 * 0.6 = $7,598 per pupil.
• For a district with % FRPL or EL = 80%, the formula would provide: 6,000 + 6,000 * 2 * 0.37 * 0.8 * 0.8 = $8,842 per pupil.
Or putting it in another way that maybe is a little more intuitive:
• BG + BG * 0.37 * % FRPL or EL + BG * 2 * 0.37 * % FRPL or EL * the % FRPL or EL above 50% (or, said another way, % FRPL or EL – 0.5) or 0 if the % FRPL or EL is < 50%.
• For a district with % FRPL or EL = 40%, this representation of the formula would provide: 6,000 + 6,000 * 0.37 * 0.4 + 6,000 * 2 * 0.37 * 0.4 * 0 = $6,888 per pupil.
• For a district with % FRPL or EL = 60%, the formula would provide: 6,000 + 6,000 * 0.37 * 0.6 + 6,000 * 2 * 0.37 * 0.6 * (0.6 – 0.5) = $7,598 per pupil.
• For a district with % FRPL or EL = 80%, the formula would provide: 6,000 + 6,000 * 0.37 * 0.8 + 6,000 * 2 * 0.37 * 0.8 * (0.8 – 0.5) = $8,842 per pupil
A more narrative description of the formula:  It adds an amount equal to 37% of the base grant for each FRPL or EL student until you reach the 50% threshold. Then an additional 7.4% of the base grant is added per FRPL or EL student, on top of the 37% already added on, for each 10% increment above the 50% threshold. So, at 60%, 7.4% of the base grant is added, which grows to 14.8% of the base grant at 70%, and 22.2% at 80%, and so on.

Low-income schools shortchanged

Being proven right is usually a cause for some self-satisfaction, but U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was troubled Wednesday when he announced results of a new Department of Education study on Title I and other high-poverty schools.

“Today, we’re releasing key findings that confirm an unfortunate reality in our nation’s education system,” said Duncan during a phone call with journalists. “Many public schools serving low-income children aren’t getting their fair share of state and local funding.” (Read Duncan’s entire statement here.)

Unequal spending on salaries in Title I schools. (Source:  U.S. Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge.
Unequal spending on salaries in Title I schools. (Source: U.S. Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge.

By “many” Duncan means a lot. More than 40 percent of Title I schools spent less per student on salaries than non-Title I schools within the same district, according to the first-of-its-kind study. U.S. Department of Education researchers examined teacher salaries and spending on other resources for more than 13,000 school districts across the country. Schools had to submit the information as a requirement for receiving funds under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

Of California’s 10,000 or so schools, well over 6,000 receive funds from the federal Title I program to provide additional support for children considered at risk due to poverty. The Department of Education’s report came one day after the U.S. Census Bureau released new figures showing that more than one in five U.S. children live in poverty, an increase of over a million children between 2009 and 2010.

Under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA is the previous and soon to be subsequent name of No Child Left Behind), schools eligible for Title I funding first have to receive state and local funding that’s comparable to the amount given to non-Title I schools. Since about 80 percent of funding goes to salaries, it should be simple to calculate. However, the definition of comparability was compromised by a loophole in Title I language that allows reporting by district-wide salary averages rather than by individual schools.

Here’s the legalese version as written in the law (a note of caution: skip this if you’re prone to dizziness):

(B) Determinations – For the purpose of this subsection, in the determination of expenditures per pupil from State and local funds, or instructional salaries per pupil from State and local funds, staff salary differentials for years of employment shall not be included in such determinations.

The loophole makes it nearly impossible for the U.S. Department of Education to know whether districts are giving Title I schools at least an equal amount of state and local funds as the rest of the schools in the district.

“In far too many places Title I money is filling budget gaps rather than being used to close achievement gaps,” said Duncan.

That would change if the reauthorization of ESEA authored by U.S. Senators Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming) makes it through Congress. They’ve inserted language to close the loophole.

California takes the lead

In its usual ambivalent fashion, California is a bit ahead of the rest of the nation in requiring better reporting, but is not doing so well in ensuring that the data is accurate and uniform. In 2005, California passed SB 687, the first law in the country requiring every district to report per-pupil spending annually – including teacher salaries – on a school-by-school basis. The bill, by State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), amended the School Accountability Report Card, or SARC: detailed reports containing demographics and other information that every school must complete and make public.

One problem with SARC, said attorney John Affeldt with Public Advocates, is that the State Department of Education has not provided clear guidance on the reporting categories. In a report he co-authored on SB 687, titled “Lifting the Fog of Averages,” one example, said Affeldt, is that while some districts include librarians in the same group as teachers, others put librarians in a different pot. And when counting people who work at more than one school, such as custodians and resource specialists, some districts will divvy up the salary among all the schools, while others make it a district expenditure.

“A key next step for federal and state policy is to move toward having all districts follow the same decision rules in accounting for expenditures,” said Affeldt. “That way, we will finally be able to compare school-level spending across districts and even across states.”

For now, the ambiguity in the law, especially in Title I, allows districts to continue the practice of putting the lowest-paid

Salary gaps can reach nearly $4,000 in districts with large ranges in poverty levels. (Source: Center for American Progress). Click to enlarge.
Salary gaps can reach nearly $4,000 in districts with large ranges in poverty levels. (Source: Center for American Progress). Click to enlarge.

teachers, i.e., the least experienced, to work in the highest-poverty schools.

California Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) is attempting to take SB 687 a step or two further.  Her bill, AB 18, would create a weighted student funding formula that would give schools more money for each low-income child enrolled.  AB 18 is on a two-year track, and should be taken up in the next legislative session.

But Duncan insists that states and districts don’t need to rewrite their funding formulas to abide by the intent of Title I.  Most districts would have to change only 1 to 4 percent of their total school-level expenditures in order to provide comparable funding for their Title I and high-poverty schools, said Duncan.  But that small shift could be huge for Title I schools, bringing an increase in funding of between 4 and 15 percent.

The U.S. Department of Education has put a searchable database on line for educators, parents, policymakers and anyone in the public to see how their local districts stack up in funding high-poverty schools.  From there, Duncan said he hopes to get a national conversation going. Only Congress can change the actual law, said Duncan, but that doesn’t mean that school districts can’t start doing the right thing.