Few Californians may know it, but the state is in the midst of transforming the way it finances public education. The goal of the change, spearheaded by Gov. Jerry Brown, is to direct more money to schools with tough-to-teach students.
That’s a worthy objective, but a new report by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California suggests that the new system might need some tweaking to live up to its promise.
The need is great. The PPIC report notes that 63 percent of California’s 6.2 million public school students are considered high need. More than half qualify for free or reduced price school lunch programs, and nearly one-fourth of the students are English language learners.
Under the new approach, every district in the state gets a base grant with an identical amount of money per student.
On top of that, districts receive a supplemental grant for each student who is poor or not yet fluent in English. The reason is that research shows that these students are tougher to teach, requiring smaller class sizes or additional teacher aides, for instance. These extra grants are equal to 20 percent of the base grant for each student.
Finally, districts with high concentrations of high-need students – more than 55 percent of their enrollment – get another grant, equal to 50 percent of the base allocation for each student over that threshold.
The combination of all of these grants can be dramatic. Consider two districts of nearly equal enrollment – Fremont Unified in the Bay Area and Stockton Unified south of Sacramento.
In Fremont, about 31 percent of students are high need. In Stockton, the number is nearly 90 percent. As a result, Fremont gets about $8,200 per student, while Stockton receives $10,400 per child, or about 27 percent more.
But here’s the problem: In some districts, the high-need kids are concentrated in just a few schools. That means while those schools have all the challenges of highly concentrated schools elsewhere, they don’t get extra money because their entire district is not impacted.
In Sacramento County, the Folsom-Cordova district is an example of this disparity.
At Cordova Villa Elementary, 96 percent of the students are considered high need. But in the entire district, the rate is 39 percent, so the school does not get the same extra resources it would receive if it were located in a district with a different demographic mix.
Folsom-Cordova, in fact, has the most variability among its schools of any district in the state. That’s another way of saying that the district is highly segregated by income. It has a few schools with lots of low-income students and others with high numbers of middle-income or wealthy kids.
One of the goals of Brown’s reform was to have state money follow the students so that needs and the funding to meet them were better matched. In this case, the new system is falling short.
The governor and the Legislature ought to consider a midcourse correction that directs even more of the money for high-need students to the schools in which they are actually enrolled.