January 14, 2014

Editorial: Don’t squander promise of new school funding

The State Board of Education still has work to do to ensure that school funds intended for disadvantaged kids actually reach them.

Growing up in in a poor area is not like growing up in Beverly Hills, Gov. Jerry Brown said as he fought to overhaul how California spends money on public schools.

Brown's vision was much needed. California will spend $61.6 billion on six million public school students in the coming year. How that money gets spent is vital to our future.

California's new school-funding system reflects the truth that some kids bring disadvantages to the schoolhouse door and need additional services to thrive.

That's why a school district such as Fresno Unified, with 92% of its students recognized as "high needs," would get annual payments in excess of $12,000 per pupil by the 2020-21 school year instead of the nearly $7,000 it gets now, according to EdSource.

A more affluent school district such as Clovis Unified, where 40% of students are high needs, would go from $6,427 per pupil to $9,714, EdSource calculates.

On Thursday, the State Board of Education will make big decisions about the rules districts will need to follow when they allocate dollars to individual schools under the new system.

The board deserves credit for listening to the 200 Californians who showed up at a November meeting to protest the first draft. It held meetings with more than 40 groups and came back with a revised draft.

It is much improved. But major loopholes remain. The board should close them before voting on Thursday.

The tension is this: Districts want maximum flexibility when deciding where the money should go. Advocates for disadvantaged kids want to make sure that flexibility does not mean that extra dollars get spread among all students instead of going to services for disadvantaged students.

The State Board's latest draft strikes a better balance than the first. The new draft provides more transparency. The public would be able to see, for example, that the base payment would be $7,557 for each third-grader in every school district. For third-graders whose parents are poor, there would be extra payments of $1,511 per student.

For school districts with large concentrations of poor kids -- Fresno Unified, for example -- the state would make additional payments, pushing the total to $12,264 for each disadvantaged child annually. The debate is over how that extra money would be spent.

Districts would have to set goals for disadvantaged kids at each school site. But a major problem remains. The language is vague as to what to do when districts want to spend the dollars for disadvantaged students on districtwide initiatives that affect all students, such as reducing class sizes, buying tablet computers or restoring after-school programs. In the current draft, districts must show that this is the "most effective use" of funds to meet their goals for disadvantaged students. The draft does not define "effective."

At a minimum, districts should have to show how these districtwide services would directly improve the academic achievement of disadvantaged kids, and not just dilute services to them.

An equally big flaw is that the draft still would allow school districts to spend extra dollars generated by disadvantaged kids for any purpose under the sun. Critics have a well-founded fear that such flexibility would lead to across-the-board salary increases for teachers, with nothing to show in improvements for disadvantaged kids.

A wide array of groups -- from EdTrust West to Children Now to EdVoice -- has made suggestions for amendments to better ensure that extra dollars help disadvantaged kids first and foremost, while still boosting local control over the current broken, inflexible state funding system. The board listened in November, and it should listen again now.

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