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Viewpoints: California’s school spending should target needy students

California is home to about 60,000 foster youths, 1.4 million English-language learners and 3.7 million children living in low-income households. Issues of poverty, language and unstable households present significant barriers to the closing the academic achievement gap.

When Gov. Jerry Brown unveiled the state’s new school financing system, the Local Control Funding Formula, he acknowledged that specific funding needed to be directed to communities with concentrations of these disadvantaged students, noting that equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice.

For many of my fellow lawmakers, including members of the Legislative Black Caucus, our support was contingent on this approach – and on the promise that funding aimed at helping low-income children, English-language learners and foster youths will actually be spent on improving the outcomes of these students.

In adopting the new funding formula, the governor and Legislature recognized that these funds become less effective if distributed broadly across the state – if there’s too much discretion and too little justification on how money is spent at the district level.

Unfortunately, the draft regulations that governed how school districts implemented the funding formula this year do not reflect the spirit of the law passed by the Legislature. They do not ensure sufficient transparency, equity and accountability at the district level and – most alarming to me and my colleagues – the language left room for loopholes allowing districts to use funding designated for low-income students, English learners and foster youths for other purposes. While many districts did the right thing in their 2014-15 plans, focusing new resources on these groups of students, others took advantage of the loophole and spread the funds around to serve all students similarly.

Fortunately, the State Board of Education has realized the need to close this loophole and has proposed new regulations for the 2015-16 school year and beyond. In July, the board proposed that new funding designated for low-income students, English learners and foster youths must be “principally directed” to those students. While it seems pretty clear that funds generated by these higher-need students should primarily benefit those students, there are some pushing back against this language. We strongly urge the board, which plans to release updated rules on Friday, to maintain the important clarifying language to ensure that the regulations align with the intent of the law.

While the new regulations are an important step in the right direction, there is more work that the board needs to do to balance the benefits of district flexibility with clear accountability and transparency. The promise of the new funding formula hinges on creating a new level of engagement at the local level, and that engagement hinges on information made available to the public. From reading many of the first set of LCFF plans, there are many basic questions that remain unanswered and require further changes to the regulations, including:

The stakes for our students are high. We need a smart approach in place to ensure greater transparency in the new funding system and that resources support all students, especially those with the greatest needs.

California has the opportunity to make the right policy decisions, invest in education and support student achievement like never before. Let’s keep the promises that were made to lawmakers and our constituents to ensure the goals for equity, transparency and accountability are realized and this landmark reform is implemented successfully.