Why School Funding Will Always Be Imperfect

In 2013, California passed a law that was widely anticipated to better distribute resources to children in need. Now, critics say it's only making things worse.

Marcelo del Pozo / Reuters

Updated on August 25, 2016

In 2013, California passed an unusual law that aimed to revolutionize how school districts receive state funding. The Local Control Funding Formula, or LCFF, gives school districts the autonomy to decide which programs and services to spend state funding on. And it’s far more than another boring funding provision: Its primary goal was to ensure equity by devising a complex recipe of budgeting mechanisms, in part by giving additional money to districts based on their numbers of high-needs students—English learners, low-income children, and foster youth. The law’s passage marked the first time in four decades that California underwent such a dramatic shift in school finance.

“The LCFF—it’s kind of a first. It’s trying to do something equitable in funding,” said Sarah Omojola, a statewide education-rights advocate for Public Counsel, a Los Angeles-based pro bono law firm. Before the law was put into place, it was pretty much a mystery as to how the districts got their money; there were different grants, different sources, and no explicit measures aimed to equally distributing resources. “It was very confusing,” Omojola said.

But the new law doesn’t mean that funding has gotten any less mysterious. Nor does it mean that vulnerable California youth have received an infusion of resources to meet their needs. In some cases, it threatens to make student funding even more unequal. In allowing for “a lot of flexibility,” the law is also prone to unintended consequences—namely, school districts statewide are taking advantage of its broad room for interpretation. An Education Trust-West study of 40 district spending plans found that many districts aren’t accounting for all of the money they’ve been allocated or annually improving services for vulnerable youth, as required. Several districts lump expenditures together or spend the money they didn’t use for high-needs students during a school year on other services. (State finance and education department officials declined to be interviewed for this piece.)

High-needs students make up the fastest growing segment of U.S. children today, which means maintaining a skilled workforce and robust economy is largely dependent on their academic success. The federal No Child Left Behind Act aimed to narrow achievement disparities between these students and their peers but came up short largely because of its focus on standardized testing and the fact that public schools are just as—if not more—segregated now as they were decades ago. California is in a special position to create equity for these youth because it educates about one in eight U.S. students, and supporters of school-finance reform there predict that the state may inspire others to adopt similar legislation. That’s unlikely to happen, however, if the Golden State fails to demonstrate that school districts will use the new resources to better serve underprivileged youth.

Many of California’s school districts have upheld the spirit of the law—targeting money toward children in need. Santa Rosa High School District, for example, will use its supplemental funds to hire five bilingual counselors to meet the needs of foster youth and English learners. Oakland Unified School District will use supplemental funds to hire six summer-school teachers to improve the language skills of refugee students and 20 facilitators to launch summer literacy camps for low-income students.

But many others haven’t. In fact, both the Los Angeles Unified and West Contra Costa Unified school districts have faced lawsuits for budgeting money meant for these children on other expenses, such as special-education services and teacher raises. And Long Beach Unified School District, just south of Los Angeles, could be next. It has received international acclaim for the caliber of education it provides. In 2003, it even won the $1 million Broad Prize, an annual award meant for public-school systems that improve student performance while narrowing achievement gaps between low-income and minority students and their peers. In part because of those strides, it’s spent much of its state funding on things like AP classes. Still, while such spending certainly furthers the school district’s aims for prestige, some worry it ignores the basic needs of underprivileged youth—children who are underrepresented in advanced programs and overrepresented in suspension rates, according to Angelica Salazar, a senior policy associate with the Children's Defense Fund in California.

Given the way the district is using its money, “you really have to question: ‘Is this really going to help this population in a targeted way?’” Salazar said. “The priority [for the district] is getting more students to take AP classes. [That] priority is not making sure we provide social-and-emotional wellness for every young person in our district.” And when it comes to school discipline and climate, promising programs such as restorative justice aren’t high on the Long Beach district’s list of funding priorities; instead, it’s setting aside some of its supplemental money for things like campus law enforcement—including more than $6 million for school police and campus security, among other services. It also plans to spend more than $14 million on employee benefits.  “There’s always differences of opinion when it comes to how best to use these resources,” said Robert Tagorda, the director of Long Beach Unified School District’s Office of Equity Access and College and Career Readiness.

Earlier this month, the law firm Public Advocates sent a letter to the Los Angeles County’s education office accusing the district of shortchanging high-needs students by roughly $24 million during the past school year; it even asked the county’s education office to veto the district’s spending plan altogether. Long Beach’s 152-page spending plan makes little reference to the needs of underprivileged youth, the firm argues, instead touting how programs such as music education and the Common Core standards will help all students. “These broadly available services and programs tend to operate like park benches which are available to all, but in the economy of choices, it is primarily those who need rest who use them,” the plan states. Public Advocates has the support of a coalition of legal experts and community groups.

The idea behind the Long Beach spending plan is, ostensibly, that English learners, low-income, and foster youth will be able to discern which programs they need. Yet many of those children are trauma survivors, without stable housing and with tenuous connections to school, and critics say they need more than simply the option to choose. According to the plan, schools with especially large high-needs student populations will receive additional resources, but it doesn’t specify how much. After that, the rest of the money will be spread district wide, including to schools in middle-class areas. “This district is deciding all of the money is to be used wherever,” without detailing how it will or won’t affect high-needs students, Public Counsel’s Omojola said. The notion that students who most need services will use them, she argued, “is not following the spirit of the law.”

The task of making sure districts use the money they’ve allocated for high-needs students in their spending plans sometimes falls to parents and other community members. But that can be tedious given the length of these documents. (Los Angeles Unified School District’s 2015-16 spending plan exceeded 400 pages.) A California Department of Education survey of 571 parents, school administrators, advocates, and others found that they think school spending plans have grown too complex, making it difficult to see how the money will benefit vulnerable students. The state plans to simplify the planning process in the fall, but even the revised templates won’t require districts to specify how their expenditures will benefit high-needs youth.

And even efforts to be more inclusive in the planning process have fallen flat, according to some critics. Alejandra de Dios Ponce de Leon, an organizer with the community group Californians for Justice, said that many Long Beach families know nothing about the new funding law or have little say in the district’s spending plan. “The district has been able to meet the minimum requirements,” she said, “but I think what’s lacking when we talk about meaningful engagement is to go above and beyond and get to know the highest needs in the school and even in the neighborhoods where students live.” She wants the district to recognize the day-to-day experiences of disadvantaged youth, and how such students can benefit from more access to psychologists, social workers, and nurses.

Student members of Californians for Justice agree. Sandy Garcia, a youth organizer entering her senior year at Renaissance High School for the Arts in Long Beach, said that she appreciates the AP test vouchers because she comes from a low-income household and wouldn’t have been able to afford the $80 exam otherwise. But she said it’s also important for the district to address the wide range of needs students have, such as full-time nurses at schools. Meanwhile, Sandy Garcia’s classmate and fellow Californians for Justice member, Yaritza Garcia (no relation), argued that when students speak out about their concerns during board meetings, they don’t feel like district officials listen.

“They always seem to point out all the good things they do for every single school in the district,” said Yaritza Garcia, who identifies as low-income. “They also fail to realize that as the students that actually go to those schools, we see what it is that we need.” Yaritza Garcia objects to Long Beach using supplemental funding on school police, for example, saying the officers make school feel prison-like. “We need a lot more money for counselors. We need someone who can actually listen to us.”

Megan Kerr, the vice president of Long Beach’s school board, said that she and other school officials have met multiple times with advocacy groups about the spending plan. She said she’s listened to their concerns; she just doesn’t agree with all of them. Many parents want school police on campuses, she said, so the board isn’t willing to eliminate them.

But ultimately, the concerns community advocates have with the school district aren’t based just on police or any one aspect of its spending plan. They question whether the plan meets the needs of vulnerable students in particular. California’s new funding formula was designed to provide equity, but the flexibility it affords school districts may keep the playing field for high-needs youth uneven, they say.

This, according to John Affeldt, the managing attorney for Public Advocates, could lead to a backlash against the law. “We’re likely to swing the pendulum back to what we used to have, which was much more prescriptive and hindered districts,” he said. “If they don’t sort of follow the rules for improving services, the state, the administrations, and the districts risk losing a lot of public support.”