Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Poor kids’ school aid diverted

California school districts were granted extraordinary flexibility in implementing a historic overhaul of public education finance to provide more help to “high-needs” poor and English-learner students.

Gov. Jerry Brown cited “subsidiarity” as his principle, defining it as trusting local school officials to use extra money from the Local Control Funding Formula wisely within broad state guidelines.

The flexibility Brown and the state Board of Education granted disturbed an informal coalition of civil rights and education reform groups. They feared that the extra allocations of funds for nearly 60 percent of California’s 6 million-plus students would be dissipated into teacher salaries and other general uses, rather than concentrated on the targeted kids.

Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union surveyed the “local control accountability plans” of 40 large districts and found them wanting.

Just one of the LCAPs the ACLU studied addressed the eight required “metrics.” Moreover, most districts couldn’t account for extra money they had been allocated and didn’t explain why they were using LCFF funds for other purposes.

Last spring, the ACLU and Public Advocates, another civil rights organization, sent letters to every school district, county school superintendent and many other school officials outlining the findings.

The ACLU report, coupled with other studies of the LCFF’s implementation, fed suspicions that the extra money was being diverted to other purposes.

Those suspicions gained even more currency a few weeks ago when state schools chief Tom Torlakson, countermanding his own department, told districts that they could use LCFF money for teacher salary increases – even suggesting the rationales they could use to justify it.

The ACLU has taken a new look at the most recent batch of LCAPs and once again found them lacking.

“Unfortunately, our preliminary review of a small sample of just-adopted LCAPs reveals that districts are still struggling with these foundational issues,” David Sapp, the ACLU’s director of educational advocacy, wrote this month.

The ACLU’s report suggests that districts are ignoring the LCFF law and diverting billions of extra dollars meant to help poor kids who desperately need a boost.

Brown told us the districts could be trusted to do the right thing by those kids but they are also under enormous political pressure, particularly from the California Teachers Association and other unions, to make up for years of austerity.

Brown should intervene, demand that the districts comply with the law he championed and if they fail, tighten up on the “flexibility” they were granted.

Torlakson obviously won’t do anything. He, by his own words, is complicit in the diversion.

The ACLU and Public Advocates are already suing Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest district, for such diversions and are clearly ready to use the courts to enforce Brown’s law if he won’t do it.