California’s new Local Control Funding Formula for distributing education money to school districts represents a three-tier system of funding for students, including those classified by the state as “disadvantaged” — children from low-income families, English learners and foster children.
But districts omitted from the third — and potentially lucrative — tier are none too pleased about it.
The first tier of the system set into motion last year is a base grant entitlement from the state Department of Education, targeted to be about $7,643 for every student in a school district by the time the formula is fully implemented in 2020-21. Some districts will get a little more, some a little less, depending on enrollment in different grade levels.
There are two additional tiers of target entitlements: a supplemental 2020-21 grant of up to 20% of the base grant for every disadvantaged student in a district; and a “concentration” grant for districts where those disadvantaged students add up to more than 55% of enrollment. Both the supplemental and concentration grants are intended to help districts improve services for, and the academic performance of, those children.
It’s that third tier of concentration grants that is fomenting discontent among some districts with lower proportions of low-income or English-learners.
While most districts will receive some of that money, others won’t. Even among districts that do qualify for the money, some will receive more money — much more money, in some instances — than others for each low-income or English-learning student.
“I don’t like to use the words ‘winners’ and ‘losers,’ because it’s not the districts who are losing,” said Steve Ward, a legislative analyst for Clovis Unified School District, which won’t receive any concentration grant money. “It’s the very students that the principle was designed to help. There is a huge inequity now in how these students are being funded.”
What Ward and others see as “a huge inequity,” however, is justified by substantial research into education and poverty, said state Board of Education President Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University and one of the architects of the funding formula.
“A finance system that treats all low-income or EL (English-learning) students alike misses the fact that students whose peers are predominantly low-income or EL typically face greater educational challenges than students whose peers are not,” Kirst wrote with co-authors Alan Bersin and Goodwin Liu in a 2008 proposal for reforming California’s school finance system.
Extra needs, extra money
In Fresno, Kings, Madera and Tulare counties, each of the 157 school districts and charters is earmarked to receive supplemental grants, the second tier of state money. The supplemental grants are expected to be about $1,550 per disadvantaged child when it’s fully funded in 2020-21, on top of the base grant.
Of those districts, 117 will also get the third-tier concentration grants because disadvantaged students represent at least 55% of their enrollment.
The greater a district’s proportion of low-income students, the more money it will receive on a per-child basis. Those targets range from a low of $64 per low-income or English-learning child in the Columbine Elementary School District, a 107-student district in southern Tulare County that is just above the 55% threshold, to more than $1,700 for the Mendota Unified School District in western Fresno County, where more than 99% of the district’s 2,900 students fall into the disadvantaged categories. Across the four-county region, the average concentration grant target for districts is $1,236 per child.
Brooks Allen, the deputy policy director and assistant legal counsel for the state Board of Education, said the revised funding formula “reformed California’s K-12 education finance system to better align funding with student needs.”
The concentration grants, he added, are a key to focusing on districts with the greatest need. “This new system was accordingly designed, based on empirical research, to be responsive to concentrations of disadvantage by providing additional assistance to school districts with high concentrations of English learners, economically disadvantaged students and foster youth,” Allen said.
Across the Valley, however, 40 districts will receive no concentration money whatsoever. Even though they collectively account for more than 27,000 low-income, English-learning or foster-care students — and those students average almost 44% of their enrollment —those districts won’t see an extra dime because they fall short of the 55% threshold.
They include Clovis Unified, Sierra Unified and Kingsburg Joint Union High in Fresno County; Hanford Joint Union High, Lemoore Union High and Pioneer Union Elementary in Kings County; Golden Valley Unified and Yosemite Unified in Madera County; and Sundale Union Elementary and Valley Life Charter in Tulare County.
For Clovis Unified — the Valley’s second-largest district — about 43.4% of students fall into the state’s disadvantaged categories, or about 17,000 out of 39,000 students. And while enrollments of low-income or English-learner students exceed 80% at some of its campuses, including Pinedale, Sierra Vista and Tarpey elementary schools, they won’t benefit from that generous third tier of concentration grants.
In neighboring Fresno Unified, where disadvantaged students represent almost 87% of the district’s total enrollment, the 2020-21 target entitlement of concentration grants amounts to nearly $81.5 million a year, or $1,419 per student.
“There’s no doubt Fresno has a poverty issue, but Fresno Unified only comprises 55% of the city of Fresno,” said Clovis Unified’s Ward, who noted that Clovis Unified, Sanger Unified, Washington Union and Fowler Unified all encompass portions of the city. “All of us are part of this ‘community of poverty.’
“But because of the way the formula is designed, you get this huge discrepancy in the amount of dollars that one school district has to spend compared to the other, and their needs are the same,” Ward added.
Kirst told The Bee this month that greater poverty in a community often translates to greater out-of-school conditions that affect students’ academic performance in the classroom. “As the poverty intensity builds up, the challenges for students and parents do also,” Kirst said. “Concentrated poverty leads to more community disorganization such as crime and lack of jobs. A community with half poverty is a lot different than one with 99%.”
In his 2008 proposal with former state Secretary of Education Bersin and Liu, who was a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley and is now an associate justice of the state Supreme Court, Kirst noted that “many students face disadvantages that call for additional educational resources if they are to meet the same academic standards as their more privileged peers.”
Bersin, Kirst and Liu added that the weighted formula is warranted because the combination of poverty and limited English-language skills “presents educational challenges whose severity varies with concentration.”
Not settling quietly
For now, districts that fall short of the 55% threshold for disadvantaged students have little recourse but to make do with what the state gives them. “Based on current law, this is what the formulas are,” said Caryn Moore, associate director of school fiscal services for the state Department of Education. The 2020-21 targets for base, supplemental and concentration grants will fluctuate and likely be subject to cost-of-living adjustments between now and then, Moore added.
Also, if districts find their enrollments rising above the 55% threshold for concentration grants, they would become eligible to receive that extra money, Moore said. “Districts are funded each year based on the current-year circumstances,” she said. “Those counts could go up or down from year to year.”
Of about 2,055 public school districts or charters statewide, almost 900 fail to qualify for concentration grants under their enrollment figures for the 2013-14 school year. Those districts represent more than 700,000, or almost 19%, of the state’s 3.8 million low-income, English-learning or foster-care students.
In Golden Valley Unified School District, which serves the Madera Ranchos area of Madera County, Superintendent Andrew Alvarado acknowledged frustration over being left behind when it comes to concentration grants. The district has about 1,900 students, including more than 750 who are disadvantaged as English-learners or from low-income households. But that student body falls short of the 55% threshold for the concentration funds.
“We just don’t have that student population here in Golden Valley,” he said. “We do have students who fit those targeted areas, but not to the extent to qualify for concentration funds.”
Alvarado said the district is committed to doing the best job it can to serve all of its students, including the English learners, low-income and foster children, with its base and supplemental allotments from the state.
“Although we’re not receiving the (concentration) funds, our job is to make sure those students, all students, receive the education we think they deserve,” he said. “The reality of the situation is that we only have a certain amount of money to work with and we have to live within our means, and I think we’ve proven what we’re capable of doing.”
Golden Valley Unified has, however, joined the California School Finance Reform Coalition, a Clovis Unified-led group of school districts, to lobby state legislators or whoever else will listen to take a second look at the formula and the resulting discrepancies. “Clovis has been a trailblazer on this, even before the LCFF came in,” Alvarado said.
Ward, who spearheads Clovis Unified’s lobbying effort, said the group understands the concept of additional resources for disadvantaged students, but questions the rationale for the escalating scale for concentration grants in only select districts.
“English learners and low-income students don’t have the corner on the market for low achievement,” he said. “Some English learners in our district and other districts are also some of the highest-performing students in the district. That’s why we say we should be targeting any low-achieving student with these supplemental and concentration dollars.”
He said the wide variations in funding look like unintended consequences of a formula that was well-meaning but not well-thought-out by lawmakers. “This is what I think Sacramento doesn’t do enough of, looking down the road at the future implications of the laws they pass,” Ward said. “A lot of things they do there, especially for education, are well-intended and honorable goals but if you can’t implement it properly, it will implode.
“This isn’t just a Clovis Unified issue — take us out of the equation entirely,” he added. “If you felt like money is the way to solve the problem, let’s make sure it’s working for all students, regardless of where they live in the state of California, and whether it is the right amount.”