Weighted formula’s heavy load

Some of the “losers” under Gov. Jerry Brown’s school finance proposal said their piece in testimony Tuesday before a subcommittee of the Assembly Budget Committee.

A half-dozen superintendents from suburban and rural districts detailed how Brown’s weighted student formula, favoring districts with large numbers of English learners and low-income children, would harm them. Their plight made it clear why the Education Coalition is opposing Brown’s plan, and why, save for massive revisions, the governor’s major education initiative will likely go nowhere this year. None of the superintendents invited to testify were from districts that would greatly benefit from the plan.

“We agree with the governor that complexities (of the current system) should be simplified,” said Gary Stevens, assistant superintendent of Roseville Union Joint High School District. But “shortchanging suburban high school students makes no sense. Reform is needed but it must be effective or our students will be losers.”

Brown’s finance reform also had plenty of supporters at the hearing, but they were primarily a score of high school students from Oakland and San Jose, organized by Public Advocates, who had about 30 seconds each in public testimony for making the case that their schools lack the resources of schools in wealthier districts. They argued that the Legislature must require that districts getting extra money for disadvantaged students spend the dollars on those students.

It’s an important point – one that Brown has not dealt with directly. But it’s also a step ahead of the debate. There’s no consensus yet on how many dollars should be redistributed or on which needy students should get them – and how soon.

Brown wants to simplify the current funding system by ending categorical programs and redistributing the money to students of need. Every English learner or low-income student would get 37 percent more funding, and those districts with concentrations of disadvantaged students would get increasingly larger bonus percentages. A district with 90 percent disadvantaged students would get a 66 percent bonus per student, compared with a 15 percent per-student bonus for a district with 40 percent disadvantaged students. (See explanation of the plan.)

Brown’s formula is based on a plan proposed four years ago by State Board of Education President Michael Kirst and others, but with key differences. Brown’s base level of per-pupil spending is much lower; the poverty and EL supplements are higher; Kirst’s formula awarded more per-student aid to high school districts, as does the current system; and the administration’s formula, unlike Kirst’s, does not hold districts harmless, except for the first year of a six-year phase-in.

The result would be disastrous for Conejo Valley Unified, said Superintendent Jeffrey Baarstad. If it were fully implemented this year (which Brown is not proposing), the district would lose $18 million out of a $155 million budget. By 2017-18, the cut would grow to $36 million. That’s because Brown is proposing an initial base of $4,920, equivalent to the 2002 level of spending for the district, Baarstad said. And, with a student body that is 29 percent English learners or low-income, the weighted supplement would amount to only an additional 11 percent extra per student or $528 initially, compared with $3,276 per student in a district with 90 percent disadvantaged students.

There’s too much weight given to the concentration factor, Baarstad said. If additional Proposition 98 revenue over the next six years only goes to redistributing money and not restoring funding that all districts have lost in the past four years, “we will find ourselves among the poorest districts in the United States.”

Brown’s formula assumes a growth in funding of $16 billion or nearly 40 percent in six years, starting with voter approval of a tax increase in November. But if that fails, Brown is proposing an additional $450 per student cut. And if the Department of Finance’s revenue projections fall short, Baarstad and the other superintendents want to know how that would affect implementing the weighted student formula.

Backwards approach to reform

The chief problem with Brown’s formula, says Sacramento school consultant Bob Blattner, is that it is “reductive” instead of “additive.” ­Instead of first determining an adequate level of base funding for students and adding to it a supplemental amount for disadvantaged students, then calculating how much  new money would be needed, the administration’s proposal, Blattner wrote in an analysis, “rolled out in precisely the reverse order.” First it determined the available funding, which coincides with historically low levels, then it deducted the supplemental funding needed for targeted students. What was left was a base funding amount “far less than any reasonable estimation of what a base funding amount should be.”

Blattner and others are also questioning the assumptions and components of the weighted formula:

  • Justification for the 37 percent weight for needy students;
  • Whether a non-low-income English learner should get the same supplement as a low-income child;
  • Research behind the concentration factor and why the add-on should start at 50 percent, then rise sharply  so that a district with a 90 percent poverty/English learner population gets twice the supplement as a district with a 50 percent targeted population. The latter district may have two high schools with a heavy concentration of low-income students yet get less funding than a small district with only low-income students.

One could also argue that a district with a smattering of disadvantaged students needs more money per student to meet their needs.

The concentration factor should be based on data, Blattner said, should not be arbitrary – a “Laffer curve on the back of a napkin in the Capitol cafeteria,” referring to the offhand drawing that became the basis for Ronald Reagan’s supply-side ec0n0mics.

The criticisms of the specific plan don’t rebut the need for a weighted formula and additional money for English learners and poor children. But they do point to what’s been missing: a policy debate over how the formula should be designed and phased in.

What’s needed, said Julia Brownley, chair of the Assembly Education Committee, is a balance between restored funding and equitable funding.

For more than a year, Brownley has been looking at finance reform through AB 18. It would also channel extra money to English learners and poor children, but through a block grant approach. It would require up-front accountability for spending the money on those students.

Brownley hasn’t settled on a weight or a timeline for phasing it in, but she says she plans to continue working on the bill. Brown’s proposal has served as “a bucket of cold water,” waking up people to the importance of finance reform, she said yesterday. That, in turn, could spur action on AB 18 this year, or turn off legislators to trying.

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.

Charters choose Brown’s tax plan

Charter schools and the state’s largest teachers union rarely find anything to agree about. But the California Charter Schools Assn. is now the second major education group, next to the California Teachers Assn., to endorse Gov. Jerry Brown’s $7 billion tax initiative. The 13-member board of CCSA, representing most of the 982 charter schools in the state, voted unanimously to support it last week, said Jed Wallace, CEO of the charter schools association.

Brown has been leaning on political leaders to exclusively back his tax plan in order to put the squeeze on sponsors of two competing tax initiatives gathering signatures and make them drop out. But Brown didn’t call him, and he didn’t need to, said Wallace. “The governor’s is the one initiative that attempts to put the states’ broader fiscal house in order while providing some resources to education,” he said Sunday.

Then there’s the not insignificant factor that charter schools know they can count on the support of Brown, who started two charter schools in Oakland. The other two competing initiatives – “Our Children, Our Future,” sponsored by the PTA and wealthy civil rights attorney Molly Munger, and the Millionaires Tax of 2012, by the CTA’s little sibling, the California Federation of Teachers, with backing by the California Nurses Assn. – would dedicate more money for schools. Brown’s half-cent sales tax increase and quarter of 1 percent increase in the graduated income tax would produce money for the General Fund, with about 40 percent going to community colleges and K-12 schools through Propositon 98. But, through a weighted student formula, Brown is also proposing to make funding more equitable and simpler, a long-sought goal of charter schools.

A recent report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office calculated that charters receive on average $395, or 7 percent less funding per student than district schools, and that doesn’t take into consideration extra facilities costs that many charters face. Most of the difference is in smaller categorical grants, and the difference is larger for new charters. Nearly all categorical funds would gradually disappear under a weighted formula, to be redistributed to districts based on the number and concentration of low-income and English-learning students they serve.

At a forum last week at CCSA’s annual convention, State Board of Education President Michael Kirst estimated that nearly all charter schools would fare better under Brown’s formula. Also last week, Brown attended a rally for charter funding equity at the state Capitol.

Brown is proposing to raise the sales tax by a half cent for four years and the income tax on those earning more than $250,000 for five years. Brown would commit most of the education money to pay down $10 billion in deferrals, money owed to schools that the state pays in the next fiscal year. Deferrals have especially affected charters, many of which have to borrow the money owed by the state at higher short-term interest rates than district schools pay.

Nearly all charter schools are nonprofit organizations, with restrictions on involvement in political elections. But they can provide information to parents on the impact of the various initiatives on their schools, Wallace said.

Neither the California School Boards Association nor the Association of California School Administrators has yet taken a position on which initiative to support. Of the other members of the Education Coalition, the teachers unions are split, and the state PTA is backing Munger’s $10 billion increase in the income tax.

Weighted formula’s impact

In six years, when Gov. Brown’s proposed new funding system is fully phased in, the average statewide funding per student is expected to be $9,200. At that time, the per-pupil funding for Los Angeles Unified would be $1,250 higher per student – $10,460; Coachella Valley Unified, a 17,000-student district in Riverside County, would receive $12,162 per student.

At the opposite end, Pleasanton Unified, in Contra Costa County, would receive about $5,000 less per child than Coachella Valley – $7,198, or a little more than 1 percent above the $7,073 it’s scheduled to receive in Prop 98 funding next year. Berkeley Unified would get $8,212, only $515 more per child after six years of phasing in the new finance system.

The numbers, released last week by the Department of Finance, show  the fundamental realignment in funding that would unfold under Brown’s weighted student funding formula. (Click here for the full statewide district-by-district breakdown. See the far right column for the additional dollars each district will get in 2017-18 compared with the proposed 2012-13 district per-student amounts in column 5. If you’re confused, hold tight; I’ll explain how to read the chart, using Alameda County, in a moment.)

In its broadest terms, the weighted student formula system gives extra dollars to districts with large numbers of English-learning students and those from families with low incomes – out of recognition that these children require extra resources to compensate for their disadvantages, and perhaps to attract and retain good teachers.

Those districts with very low percentages of these children not only would get relatively less, but, like Pleasanton, would not benefit, after years of facing substantial cuts in state funding, from what Finance officials are predicting will be substantial increases in Proposition 98 funding levels in the next half-dozen years.

Under the current system, districts get roughly the same basic per-student allotment (generally but not always within a 10 percent range), plus extra money from categorical programs for designated purposes – many of which do serve poor kids. Brown wants to throw most of the categorical money into a pot and redistribute it to the targeted children. Since some of the formulas for categoricals like Economic Impact Aid, home-to-school transportation, and Targeted Instructional Improvement Grants (desegregation funding favoring a handful of urban districts) are dated,  one can argue that the new system would be fairer and simpler. However, because Brown is not guaranteeing minimal increases in base-level funding, some districts – particularly high school districts and rural districts with a lot of bus money – that benefited under the current system would lose out under a weighted system unless the formula is changed.

How your district might fare

In analyzing the district-by-district breakdown , keep the following points in the back of your mind:

  • Brown builds in the assumption that his proposed temporary $6.8 billion tax initiative will pass in November. If it doesn’t, all bets are off.
  • The Department of Finance assumes that Proposition 98 funding will increase a healthy 40 percent between now and 2017-18 as the state’s economy recovers. That’s why Brown can claim that, with very few exceptions, districts will do better in 2017-18 than in 2012-13.
  • The weighted student system consists of a uniform base grant, comprising 68 percent of the Proposition 98 funding for the system, and the supplemental funding for disadvantaged students, making up the remaining 32 percent. The base grant will start out at $4,920 and grow to $6,660 in 2017-18.
  • The weighted student formula does not include about $3 billion in categorical funds that would continue to be protected. The largest is special education funding, along with after-school and school nutrition programs.
  • This is the first pass; Brown administration officials have indicated a willingness to change it, and, as you will see, there are reasons to do so.
  • Basic aid districts – the roughly 10 percent of districts that are funded with property taxes alone – are not included, though they would be affected through a loss of categorical money.
District per student funding, 2012-13 to 2017-18 with a weighted student funding (Source: Department of Finance). Click twice to enlarge.
District per-student funding for Alameda County, 2012-13 to 2017-18, with a weighted student funding formula. Click twice to make this chart large enough to read. (Source: Department of Finance)

Using Alameda County, above, to illustrate, the  most important columns in the chart are 5, 11, and 14.

  • Column 5: What each district will receive in per-student funding in 2012-13, pre-weighted student formula: $6,302 in the case of Alameda City Unified. No district will receive less than this. (HTS refers to home-to-school transportation, which will be protected next year only.)
  • Column 11: The per-student funding in 2017-18, after the full implementation of the weighted student formula ($7,981 for Alameda City Unified).
  • Column 14 (far right): The dollar difference between the 2012-13 and 2017-18 funding ($1,679 for Alameda City Unified).

As for the other columns:

  • Columns 6-13: Brown is proposing to phase in the formula over six years; the columns show the effect on per-student funding and net difference over that time. In 2012-13, only 5 percent of per-student funding will include the weighted formula; the rest will be the current system. Brown is proposing to hold all districts harmless, with no loss of money next year only (column 6). So in 2013-14, without that protection, some districts, including Berkeley and Pleasanton, will lose some funding per student with the formula based 15 percent on the formula, 85 percent based on the old system. Some small rural districts with big busing expenses will lose the most under the new system unless busing as a categorical is protected, as some rural superintendents are proposing.
  • Column 2: Number of students in the district
  • Columns 3 and 4: The percentages of students who are English learners and are from low-income households. Extra dollars are based on these figures. (Since about three-quarters of English learners are also low-income students, there is overlap. The formula, however, does not double count. To estimate the correct number of non-low-income English learners, the Department of Finance multiplied the EL percentage by one-quarter and then added this percentage to the low-income percentage. In the case of Alameda  City Unified, a quarter of 22.37 percent is about 6 percent EL, added to 32.5 percent low-income for a total population of disadvantaged of 38.5 percent.

Three quick observations:

  • There are at least a couple of ways of comparing how your district would fare under a weighted student formula.  One is to add 40 percent to the district’s 2012-13 per student funding to see how the district would do in 2017-18 under the current system, then compare that with 2017-18 funding under a weighted student funding. Another way is to compare the 2017-18 per student funding with $9,200, the statewide per student funding that year. (There clearly are some errors in the Department of Finance chart, Cambrian District in Santa Clara County the most obvious.)
  • The funding of East Side Union High School District in San Jose, the state’s second largest high school district, illustrates the need for two potential changes to the formula.

One would be to continue the current funding system’s awarding of  extra dollars to high school districts and, to a lesser degree, to unified districts, out of recognition that older students incur higher expenses. East Side Union would get $7,257 per student next year under the current system, nearly $1,000 above the state average. In 2017-18, it would get $8,155, more than $1,000 below the state average. For a district struggling to prepare students for college and the job market, that will be tough.

East Side Union may also be hurt by the use of free and reduced lunch eligibility as the criterion for the low-income weight. Signing up for lunches is voluntary, and fewer students do so in high school than in elementary school. East Side Union’s feeder districts are roughly 60 percent low-income. East Side Union is 40 percent. The drop will translate into a lot fewer dollars under the weighted formula. Using a district’s Title I numbers, which are based on census data, may be a more accurate measure.

  • The formula gives bonus money to districts with high concentrations of disadvantaged students, starting when they comprise 60 percent of a student body. A district with 80 percent disadvantaged students w0uld get nearly $3,000 per student more than a district with 50 percent. The Legislature  may want to examine the research justifying such a difference.

Thanks to Bob Blattner of  Blattner and Associates of Sacramento and Nick Schweizer of the Department of Finance for walking me through the numbers. Blame me, not them, if there are any mistakes in translation.

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.

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.

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.

Switch to weighted funding

Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing to overhaul how K-12 schools are funded, starting with next year’s budget. The move to a “weighted pupil funding” formula would vastly simplify the current complicated and inequitable funding system and shift responsibility for most spending decisions to the local level. It also holds the promise of providing extra money for low-income students and English learners.

At the same time, it would wipe out dozens of protected or “categorical” programs, which would all be thrown into one pot and reallocated on a per-student basis.

Weighted student funding is the system that finance reformers, including State Board of Education President Michael Kirst, have advocated for years and that Brown himself called for in his campaign platform. Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, chair of the Assembly Education Committee, has been working on  a version of it for a year and has made passage of AB 18 her priority for this year.

(click twice to enlarge)
(click twice to enlarge)

But until it appeared on page 140 of his budget summary on Thursday (see wording at left), Brown had given no sign that he was ready to move forward with it.

The administration has not released details yet, so it’s too soon to say who would be “winners” and “losers.” But to ensure that districts are held financially harmless, the budget summary said the system would be phased in over five years. It also implied that few categoricals would be spared consolidation, including those with powerful backers, like the class-size reduction program favored by the California Teachers Association and Economic Impact Aid, which has diverted millions of dollars to Los Angeles Unified. An exception to consolidation would be federally funded special education and foster care.

Kirst said that the details would be negotiated with the Legislature, but that Brown would defend the concept and principles behind a new system. In an April 2008 brief, Kirst, together with former state Education Secretary Alan Bersin and then law professor and now state Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu, outlined the weighted pupil system that Brown is proposing.

A critical detail will be the percent of funding increase or “weight” that will be given to low-income students and English learners. Peter Birdsall, executive director of the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, who attended a short budget briefing Thursday, said that additional weight would be given to those students attending schools with heavy concentrations of disadvantaged students.

“It’s encouraging that the governor is taking on school finance reform and moving the system toward a more fair and coherent weighted student formula system that directly takes into account the needs of low income students and English learners,” said John Affeldt, managing attorney at the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates Inc. “We’ll have to see the details to know the extent to which his proposal will truly benefit the neediest students.

Wiping out mandates

Along with providing more flexibility with spending, Brown is proposing to eliminate half of the mandates imposed on K-12 schools and community colleges. (The budget summary does not list them.) And he wants to create a $200 million block grant to encourage districts to continue to follow the “optional” mandates that he is not dropping. There is a catch, however. Once districts accept the money, they must agree to follow the mandates covered by the block grant, which will include “core programs, including school and county office fiscal accountability reporting,” and “sensitive notification and school safety functions like pupil health screenings, immunization records, AIDS prevention, School Accountability Report Cards, and criminal background checks.”

Mandates are a sore subject with local officials, since they have had to fight for reimbursement and argue that they’ve been only partially compensated for the costs. Brown acknowledges this in the budget summary: “Many existing mandates fail to serve a compelling purpose. The mandates determination process takes years. Reimbursement costs are very often higher than anticipated and can vary greatly district by district. Further, the reimbursement process rewards inefficiency.”

Birdsall praised the shift of power from Sacramento to local districts. So did Bob Blattner, principal with Blattner & Associates, an education consulting firm based in Sacramento. For too long the state’s been laying down railroad track for districts to follow and then blaming them for where they end up,” he said. “Brown is acknowledging that decisions are often best made locally.”

But Brown is not letting districts completely off on their own. He is promising to couple flexibility with “a system of accountability measures that will be the basis for evaluating and rewarding school performance under this finance model.”

Along with the current state standardized tests, measures will include “locally developed assessments and qualitative measures of schools.” That’s basically what Brown promised when he vetoed Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s SB 547 last fall. That bill would have created new state accountability measures to deemphasize a narrow attention to standardized math and reading tests.

Kirst said that Brown has not yet made up his mind on the locally based measures. But the result, after shifting power from Sacramento to local districts, will be a “much thinner Ed Code,” he said.

PTA unites behind an initiative to transform and fairly fund our schools

This holiday season, one item at the top of wish lists for most parents is a public school system that delivers a well-rounded education for all students – one that prepares them for college, career, and adulthood. The future of our state and our economy depends on it.

Unfortunately, school budgets have been decimated by $20 billion in cuts in just the last few years. Essential programs for students have been eliminated or cut dramatically.

One thing I see and hear firsthand when I visit local communities throughout the state is that parents, educators, and community members have had it with these cuts.

In a recent survey, nine out of every 10 local PTA leaders and members rated “adequate school funding” as extremely important – the highest response by far to any policy issue. In particular, parents and PTA members believe more funding is needed to restore the arts, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and physical education; as well as to reduce class sizes and add back counselors, school libraries, and librarians.

Californians see something really scary happening: An entire generation of children is being denied the public education program they need to succeed in the workforce and in life.

We cannot let this happen.

That’s why the California State PTA is planning ahead for November 2012.

The November 2012 statewide ballot presents an opportunity we can’t afford to miss for our children. That’s when voters will have a chance to do something truly transformative for our public schools by passing the Our Children, Our Future: Local Schools and Early Education Investment Act, which was submitted to the Attorney General last week.

We’re urging everyone to unite around this measure, sponsored by the Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization. Here’s why.

First, the Our Children, Our Future: Local Schools and Early Education Investment Act is the boldest and most thoughtful proposal out there. It proposes to raise the most new money solely for K-12 schools and early childhood education programs – approximately $10 billion per year. Our state faces a number of serious challenges. This measure seeks to confront the most important of those: strengthening our public education system.

The new money must be used to improve students’ academic performance, graduation rates, and readiness for career, college, and life. The infusion of desperately needed resources will help schools restore and expand the educational program for all students, with more instruction in the arts, physical education, STEM, vocational and career education, and other courses that help keep students engaged in school and prepared for 21st century careers.

Funds can also be used to reduce class sizes; hire more counselors, librarians, and school nurses; or extend learning time through longer school days, a longer school year, or summer school – all components of a well-rounded education that have been cut to the bone in recent years.

Transparency and accountability

Second, the Our Children, Our Future: Local Schools and Early Education Investment Act proposes important reforms that ensure transparency, oversight, and accountability.

The new revenue will be placed in a trust account, and the Legislature will be prohibited from interfering with local schools and districts over how to use the funds. Local parents, educators, and staff in every school community, including charter schools, will be empowered to provide input into how the new funding is used, with local governing boards authorizing the decisions. Every school and district must report clearly on how the money is used and what outcomes are achieved.

This would be a powerful reform because it takes a giant step toward real local control – as well as meaningful parent and community engagement.

Third, the initiative will help close the achievement gap. In addition to enabling all schools to provide a more complete range of courses and academic support services, the initiative provides additional per-student funding to support low-income children and English language learners. Plus, 15 percent of the total revenue from the initiative will be targeted to expand access to early childhood education and preschool programs, which are proven to increase school readiness and help to close the gap.

To generate the needed revenues, the initiative relies on a broad-based, graduated income tax increase. Polls show that voters will support such a tax increase if they know the money goes directly to their local schools.

Californians understand that school funding has been cut too deeply. Our children cannot wait any longer for legislators to get their act together to address what our State Superintendent of Public Instruction has called a “state of fiscal emergency” for our schools.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about the “fierce urgency of now.” The time is now for all of us to get behind a bold plan that will provide real opportunities and a well-rounded education for all students.

We owe it to them.

Carol Kocivar of San Francisco is president of the California State PTA. She has served as president-elect, vice president for communications, an education commission member, and on numerous committees with the California State PTA. A past president of the San Francisco Second District PTA, Kocivar has worked as a journalist, attorney, and ombudsperson for special education. The California State PTA has nearly 1 million members volunteering on behalf of public schools, children, and families. The PTA also advocates at national, state, and local levels for education and family issues. For information: www.capta.org

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.