(photo credit: Matthew Grant Anson)
Fairness, at least the version kids pick up on while out on the schoolyard during recess, is fairly simple, black-and-white concept. But as education stakeholders in California grapple with the nuts and bolts of the funding intricacies that come with the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), they are quickly finding that fairness actually comes in a thousand shades of gray in terms of the distribution of millions of dollars.
While the first half of LCFF is about giving districts more autonomy in spending their funds, the second half relates to giving districts with high-needs kids more money. “High-needs” is a term that encompasses kids living in poverty, learning English, or in foster care. And it’s not just chump change that districts receive for having those students; once LCFF is fully in place, each head can bring in an extra $3,000 to the district.
Once the dots are connected, it quickly becomes clear that the way “high-needs” gets tabulated – particularly in regard to what poverty means – can be what leads to hundreds of millions of dollars for districts. And that’s where California is running into problems.
Some of California’s biggest school districts, like Los Angeles, San Diego, and Fresno, are worried that they will be shortchanged millions because of the California Department of Education’s decision back in August to require that schools verify family income yearly. Previously, it would have been acceptable under LCFF to use national school lunch program data, which is gathered every four years. Some districts are now in a race against time to get information from their high-need students’ families to make sure they receive the extra funding they’re entitled to.
But it’s not a matter of the state not wanting to hand over the money the districts deserve – far from it. It’s really an issue of ensuring that the right amount of money goes to the right schools. ““It’s one thing to do a rough estimate (based on numbers collected every four years), and it’s a much different thing when you have to calculate how much money to give to schools,” said the California Department of Education’s Keric Ashley to EdSource,
“The underlying problem is they’re going to have to show how many kids they have in these categories,” said Fred Silva, Senior Fiscal Policy Advisor at California Forward. “The state is going to give them the money, it’s just how articulate are districts regarding the categories of kids?”
Erin Gabel, director of government affairs for the California Department of Education told the LA Times as much. “We have to make sure that the [new system] is being driven by real students and their needs.”
A quick glance at the numbers at stake adds extra oomph to the importance of a standardized and up-to-date way of confirming need. There is $200 million on the line for LA Unified alone, which is particularly troubling when combined with the fact that less than 40 percent of the verification forms have been returned to the district as of last Friday, the original deadline. The deadline is now in March, to allow districts extra time to get the information. But districts are still worried they won’t get the right documentation in time and will be shorted much needed money. Because of this, some are pleading for some type of reprieve.
“This has little to do with local flexibility,” Silva said. “Since it is a statewide system for distributing resources, a statewide system for gathering the data is required.” Uniformity is key, he says. And moving forward it absolutely will be, but as for now the Department of Education must keep a close eye on the progress districts make in getting the right documentation in time for the deadline. No one wins when a student’s needs aren’t tabulated.