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.
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, The Local Control Funding Formula Is Under Scrutiny in California - The Atlantic: