Gov. Jerry Brown promised four years ago to lift all schools and narrow yawning gaps in learning among California’s rainbow of students, a stubborn inequity that limits our workforce and fractures civil society.
But in her children’s schools, Guadalupe Luna sees little trace of Brown’s ambitious reform.
“I’m frustrated and angry to know that the money is not getting to high-needs students” as Brown pledged, Luna said.
She’s taking legal action with fellow parents to block the Long Beach school board from diverting $40 million away from struggling students. Little money can be found, the plaintiffs argue, for “school uniforms and better training for teachers,” or tutoring for kids already falling behind.
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With money for low achievers going to janitors, teacher salaries and middle-class schools, a bill moving through the legislature would shine a brighter light on school-by-school spending. Yet the governor’s top advisers won’t support it. Why not?
Bewildering really, after Brown has rained $41 billion on local school chiefs over the past four years, beseeching them to elevate lagging pupils.
Test scores have inched upward statewide in a jagged saw-tooth fashion over the past generation. Still, just one Latino student in three clears the state’s rigorous proficiency bars, compared with nearly two-thirds of white peers. Black students score even lower.
To remedy these disparities, Brown revolutionized public school financing with Local Control Funding. This progressive model has distributed billions of new dollars to all schools, rich and poor, then infused another $9 billion annually into districts serving children held back by poverty or scarce exposure to English.
The bold experiment may be working at detectable levels. School districts such as Elk Grove, Los Angeles Unified and Sacramento City, sharing in these new riches for flagging students, have eased teaching loads, stiffened the rigor of courses and stoked higher achievement, says a new UC Berkeley study.
But these uplifting effects remain pint-size. Luna’s story tells why: Districts are skirting fresh state dollars around the very kids who generate the extra aid.
Los Angeles offers the most flagrant case. The gutsy state school chief, Tom Torlakson, has demanded that L.A. Unified repay low achieving students after shortchanging them $245 million each year. The local board instead spread new dollars across all parts of the district, watering down the benefits for high-needs students, says a United Way study.
Pressure-cooker politics certainly beset city school boards as they divvy-up dollars. Ballooning health care costs and teacher pensions shift dollars away from struggling students, not to mention the demands of well-heeled parents. But using dollars intended to hoist poor pupils is unethical at best and likely illegal. Parents and activists will protest this week in L.A. to right this wrong.
Fresno’s school board voted last month to plug a similar leak, after ACLU attorneys unearthed how dollars to boost hampered students were rerouted to cover janitors, teacher pay hikes, even a police gizmo tracking the source of gunshot attacks, somehow reducing gang activity.
Despite the harm done to poor youngsters, Brown floats high above the fray. His top advisers refuse to back a bill moving through the legislature, Assembly Bill 1321, that would shine a bright light on district spending school by school. Ironic, given that the governor’s mammoth reform stems from the political reality that many school boards will remedy inequities only when the state provides fresh dollars and a stiff nudge. And what sound business would shell out $41 billion and not spend a nickel on evaluating its effects?
California still invests half of what states like New York or Massachusetts spend per pupil. The next governor must decide whether to ratchet up Brown’s earnest renewal of public education.
For now, the governor could show the nation how to equalize school quality and build a more just society – if he decides to make transparent which kids truly benefit. Lifting the life chances of poor kids could be Brown’s shining legacy. That’s more likely if good intentions are combined with tough follow-through.
Elise Buik and Antonia Hernández are president and CEO of United Way of Greater Los Angeles and California Community Foundation, respectively. Bruce Fuller, education professor at UC Berkeley, is author of Organizing Locally.