EdTrust details how unequal CA school funding system has become

With debate in the Legislature set to begin in earnest on plans for restructuring the way the state pays for public school services, a new report released by The Education Trust-West shows just how inequitable the current system has become.

Among the findings is that overall, the highest poverty school districts - those with the largest concentrations of low-income students - receive an average of $620 less per student than the districts in the most affluent areas - that could mean as much as $3.7 million more per year for students in even a mid-sized school district.

Researchers note this discrepancy still exists despite efforts by the Legislature to equalize funding through the revenue limit system. They point out that the overall revenue-limit gap between the highest and lowest poverty districts is $874.

That gap is greatest among high school districts, where it amounts to $1,344.

Part of the problem revolves around basic aid districts - those whose funding is satisfied completely by local property taxes.

As an example, the authors pointed to Solana Beach Elementary School and National Elementary School District - both in San Diego County. Solana Beach serves 2,700 students but just nine percent qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Meanwhile, National Elementary serves 5,800 students, 84 percent of which are from low income families and qualify for subsidized meals.

In 2008-09, these districts had similar base revenue limits per student, with the higher poverty National Elementary entitled to $21 more per pupil, EdTrust reported. But when add-ons and excess local taxes were included in the analysis, Solana had a revenue-limit funding total of $10,613 per student, compared with National, which had revenue-limit funding total of $5,607 per student.

Categorical programs are another source of inequality, according to EdTrust, even though many of the programs are intended to help disadvantaged students.

In many cases, they found, a district tends to continue to receive the same amount of categorical funding, regardless of how many high-need students they are serving.

This can sometimes lead one district to receive twice as much money per high-need student from a given categorical fund than another district," the study's authors wrote. "Indeed, when we looked at just the highest poverty school districts, we found that the largest districts received fewer dollars per pupil from categorical programs than the smallest districts."

As an example, the researchers considered Economic Impact Aid - one of the largest categorical programs that provide about $1 billion for English learners and educationally disadvantaged students.

EdTrust found that low-income and English-learner students in the state's highest poverty districts receive just three-fourths of the level of EIA funding as those students enrolled in the lowest poverty districts - -that is $405 and $544 per EIA-eligible student, they reported.

Finally, the report looked at ability of higher-income areas to provide additional support to schools through parcel taxes, parental contributions and donations from other private sources. Overall, they reported, the state's wealthiest districts are able to raise $570 more in local funds per student than the poorest districts.

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