School fund­ing 101

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

One of Gov. Jerry Brown’s great­est and most dra­matic ac­com­plish­ments has been his re­form of the way Cal­i­for­nia al­lo­cates money to public schools. He used the re­ces­sion to hit the re­set but­ton, re­plac­ing an ar­cane and bla­tantly un­fair for­mula with a stream­lined and eq­ui­table dis­tri­bu­tion: a cer­tain amount of fund­ing per stu­dent, and sig­nif­i­cantly ex­tra for those who are poor, in foster care or not flu­ent in English — in other words, stu­dents who need ex­tra help.

But this fairer ap­proach will work only if school dis­tricts are com­mit­ted to spend­ing the money for the ben­e­fit of the dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents for whom it was in­tended, and early signs are that at least some school dis­tricts are defin­ing that ben­e­fit broadly — per­haps too broadly.

The Fresno Uni­fied School Dis­trict, for in­stance, is seek­ing per­mis­sion to use the added fund­ing for teacher raises. Now a study from UC Berke­ley finds that Los An­ge­les Uni­fied has spent a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the ex­tra money on li­brary aides and as­sis­tant prin­ci­pals for schools dis­trictwide, not just those with the most stu­dents in need.

These de­vel­op­ments are trou­bling to some of the peo­ple who ini­tially cheered the Lo­cal Con­trol Fund­ing For­mula, and they’re right. Of course some flex­i­bil­ity is needed, but there is enough cause for con­cern that the state should be think­ing about tighter, though still-sen­si­ble, con­trols.

In a dis­trict such as Fresno Uni­fied, where 86% of the stu­dents qual­ify for ex­tra fund­ing, it might make sense to spend it on teacher salaries, at least at first. Teach­ers in many Cal­i­for­nia schools have gone with­out raises for years; they have lost in­come to fur­loughs, while many have con­tin­ued to pay out of their own pock­ets for nec­es­sary class­room items. When al­most all the dis­trict’s stu­dents have ex­cep­tional needs, a sta­ble and fairly paid teach­ing staff might be the best im­prove­ment Fresno could make for them, even though it also, in­ci­den­tally, helps a small group of less needy stu­dents too. This kind of spend­ing shouldn’t be an an­nual event, but right now it might be rea­son­able.

L.A. Uni­fied has a sim­i­larly large per­cent­age of dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents, but it’s a dif­fer­ent mat­ter to hire li­brary aides and other per­son­nel with the money. Un­like teacher salaries, which gen­er­ally have to be set for the en­tire dis­trict, it’s pos­si­ble to hire li­brary aides and oth­ers on a school-by-school ba­sis — and that’s what should be done. Not all schools in the dis­trict have large num­bers of dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents, and when those stu­dents are just a small part of the pop­u­la­tion of a given school, they shouldn’t be pick­ing up the tab for ev­ery­one else.

The state needs bet­ter, in­de­pen­dent over­sight of how the money is spent. Above all, it needs to de­mand re­sults. Fresno’s teacher raises are worth­while only if the dis­trict can show that they im­prove ed­u­ca­tional out­comes for dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents. The en­tire fund­ing sys­tem should be as­sessed in sev­eral years to see whether it is bring­ing about bet­ter re­sults. Ed­u­ca­tional history is full of ex­am­ples of ex­pen­sive, well-in­tended pro­grams that never helped im­pov­er­ished stu­dents.

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