LAO calls for Title I-like compliance on extra state money for disadvantaged

To better ensure school districts spend billions of dollars in support of disadvantaged students - as proposed by the governor - lawmakers should adopt compliance requirements similar to the federal Title I program, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst recommended late last week.

The suggestion is one of many contained in an overall favorable review of Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to replace the state's existing system for funding K-12 schools with a formula that is far less complex and convoluted.

Brown's proposal, which failed to win support last year, is aimed at streamlining the system by removing spending restrictions on some $6.1 billion in categorical money and bundling it with general revenue and local property tax dollars now going to schools.

Currently, districts receive varying amounts of money through the categorical programs - but under Brown's plan all districts and charter schools would receive the same per-pupil rates, adjusted by grade level.

Additional money would be given to districts based on the number of disadvantaged students they serve - that is, English learners, students eligible for subsidized meals and foster youth.

Brown's proposal for supporting disadvantaged students would provide supplemental funding equal to 35 percent of the base grant.

And, for districts with 50 percent or more of their student populations designated disadvantaged, the state would provide an additional concentration grant equal to 35 percent of the base grant for each English language learner and economically disadvantaged student above the 50-percent threshold.

The LAO said the governor's plan is a good one but lawmakers might consider making a few adjustments to improve it.

One key flaw, the LAO said, is the governor's program does not concentrate funding to those districts with the highest numbers of English learners. They point out that the governor's plan uses district-wide averages of English learners to calculate the amount of additional funding to be awarded.

The LAO suggests that in the case of unified school districts, using a district-wide average would likely overstate the number of English learners in high schools while understating the numbers in lower grades - given that the highest concentration of English learners are younger students in elementary schools who often will assimilate into the mainstream community before high school.

Thus, the LAO suggests that the formula should be based on actual enrollment numbers to provide a more accurate calculation for funding between grade spans.

A bigger concern, however, is with ensuring districts use the extra funding set aside for disadvantaged students to actually improve educational opportunities for them.

Under the governor's proposal, districts would produce a plan as part of their budget process that would disclose to their county office of education how they would use the additional state funding.

The plan would include discussion of the numbers of highly qualified teachers at school sites, programs that will benefit disadvantaged students and how the district is implementing the new common core standards.

The LAO pointed out that the county office could not intervene if they believed the funds were not being used correctly. Districts could, for instance, use the money to provide across-the-board salary increases to teachers and justify the decision by saying higher salaries would provide English learners and all other students in the district with higher quality teachers.

To prevent such actions, the LAO said the Legislature should bind districts to a higher standard of compliance.

Specifically, we recommend adopting broad-based requirements - similiar to those of (state) Economic Impact Aid or the federal Title I and Title III programs - that require the supplemental funds be used for the target student groups to supplement and not supplant the basic educational services that all students receive," the LAO said.

The concern that districts might have too much freedom over the use of the extra money intended to support disadvantaged students was one reason the governor's restructuring plan failed last summer. A number of advocate groups for low-income and English learner students criticized the proposal in hearings last spring saying there was not adequate accountability in the program.

The issue highlights a critical tension between the governor's desire to rid the funding system of its many rules and requirements and give local officials as much control over spending as possible with the need to ensure the billions in additional spending are actually used to support classroom activities.

Administration officials said in January that Brown's plan to require promulgation of the "District Plan for Student Achievement" would satisfy both goals.

To read the LAO's report click the link below.

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