Juvenile Justice

Published — September 18, 2015

California should ensure funds to help struggling students are spent as intended, report says

In this Wednesday, April 8, 2015 photo,

Los Angeles’ use of special money said to fall short


California is a couple of years into a closely watched effort aimed at providing more help to disadvantaged students—kids identified as low-income, English-as-a-Second-Language learners, homeless or in foster care.

But a new report released Thursday argues that the huge Los Angeles school district isn’t investing enough of those state dollars in the children they are intended to support. Last school year, the report argues, even after receiving $820 million in earmarked funds—on top of other state dollars—the district spent only 3 percent of its total $6.4 billion budget on “direct services, specifically focused on” on the four target groups of children.

Out of the $820 million, the study found, the district set aside only $145 million for specific and direct services designed for low-income, English learners, homeless and foster kids. The majority of the L.A. district’s students fall into one or more of these groups. Some schools’ students are virtually all target kids.

The report said L.A. school administrators used a sizable chunk—$123 million—of the $820 million earmarked for the four groups of target kids to instead shore up special-education services for the student population more generally. The district has argued that kids with disabilities often fall within the target groups of kids who are struggling with poverty and instability.

The new report—which urges more accountability and target services—was issued by the United Way, the Urban league and other groups in Los Angeles that have formed a coalition called Communities for Los Angeles Student Success, or CLASS.

The study zeroed in on the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, where working-class neighborhood schools have struggled for decades with an erosion of funding and resources, overcrowding and high teacher turnover.

“Gov. (Jerry) Brown’s measure (to distribute funds) was intended to create pathways out of poverty for our high-needs students, and we are working with our partners throughout the district and community to make sure that happens,” said Elise Buik, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Los Angeles.

In a statement responding to the report, L.A. Unified Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines said the district “ embraces input from community partners.” . He said that last year, the district hosted more than 100 community meetings, many of which were co-sponsored by the CLASS coalition. “We also met with our internal team to discuss how we could implement our strategic investments and hold ourselves accountable for the results,” Cortines added.

The state’s new funding formula has allowed the L.A. district to replenish some of the teacher and aide ranks decimated over the years—especially, recently, during the recession –as well as develop programs to improve college-prep classes. But some community groups that welcome these improvements have also been upset that more money hasn’t been devoted to counseling and “restorative justice,” a method of resolving fights and disruptions through meetings among students and teachers.

Activists who have pushed for limits on the use of the district’s school police on campuses applauded when the district last spring decided not to ahead with a plan to provide the police with $13 million out of the special funds for disadvantaged kids. The budget for restorative justice was set at about $7 million.

The CLASS report explains the history and logic of why California embraced a new way to distribute state education dollars and provide more equity for children whose schools have been unable to keep up with their needs in recent years.

For more than three decades, the state’s schools have struggled with the fallout from Proposition 13, a 1978 ballot measure that restricted raising property taxes that schools depended on.

“As a result, schools in poor areas struggled to maintain high-quality educators, lower class sizes and provide enough counselors or other support services for students,” the report says. The state tried to balance inequities with a funding formula to local districts based on average daily attendance.

In 2013, under Brown, the state shifted to a formula dubbed the “Local Control Funding Formula,” which now provides 20 percent more in funds for each high-need student in a district. On top of the base funding, extra money is provided to a district where at least 55 percent of the students are kids in the target groups.

Local districts then make decisions about how to address the kids’ needs, but they are expected to solicit parent and community input with multiple meetings and transparency in budgeting.

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