Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Fierce battle over school money masks bigger issue

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

As chronicled here and in other venues, there’s a fierce battle underway between competing factions over how to spend billions in extra state school funds to improve the education of poor children.

The education establishment is demanding “flexibility” in rules being considered by the state Board of Education, while civil rights and business-backed reform groups want more specificity and tighter monitoring.

A subset of the larger conflict is how the targeted students are being defined, because their concentrations govern how much extra state money school districts would receive.

The new law defines them as those eligible for free or reduced-price school meals, “English-learners” and foster children, and by offering big bonuses, the state is creating a financial incentive for districts to beat the bushes to qualify as many as possible.

The big numbers are kids who qualify, due to low family incomes, for the cheap meals underwritten by a federal program. It’s estimated that nearly 60 percent of the state’s 6 million K-12 students are eligible – a startling number, when you think of it.

The state is requiring districts to recertify those kids through paperwork submitted by parents every year, rather than just relying on pre-existing federal qualification, and that mandate is creating a backlash.

Last month, the huge Los Angeles Unified School District complained publicly about the state’s strict requirement. It and other districts are likely to press the Legislature to lift the annual certification requirement – part of their push for “flexibility” – but doing so could create the opportunity for manipulation.

The skirmishing over implementation masks the larger issue – whether spending more money will, as Gov. Jerry Brown and other advocates claim, have a material impact on poor kids’ educational achievement.

An eye-opening Associated Press account of what happened in Sanger lends complexity to that issue. The San Joaquin Valley town’s schools were overwhelmed with poor Latino kids, many of whom didn’t speak English, and had one of the state’s lowest levels of academic prowess.

However, beginning about a decade ago, Sanger’s parents and educators decided to do something about it within existing resources. By 2012, the AP reported, 94 percent of its Latino students were graduating from high school.

“Key to change was a model requiring collaboration among teachers, data to track students and holding teachers accountable to each other,” the AP’s Gosia Wozniacka wrote.

The district created its own tests, teachers analyzed results to judge teaching techniques, and new methods were tried out.

School money is obviously important, but it’s not the only factor, as Sanger’s experience demonstrates, and the money feeding frenzy now underway should not overshadow that fact.