Is California’s big investment in needy students paying off?

Madison Elementary School Principal Lisa Gonzales-Solomon snaps a selfie with her students one morning before class in Santa Ana. The district is one of 15 CALmatters studied to understand how well the state’s new school funding formula is working. Iris Schneider/For CALmatters

California’s new system for funding public education has pumped tens of billions of extra dollars into struggling schools, but there’s little evidence yet that the investment is helping the most disadvantaged students.

A CALmatters analysis of the biggest districts with the greatest clusters of needy children found limited success with the policy’s goal: to close the achievement gap between these students and their more privileged peers. Instead, results in most of those places show the gap is growing.

The test scores echo a broader and growing concern about the four-year-old Local Control Funding Formula from civil rights groups, researchers and legislators. They also raise concerns about whether the $31 billion invested so far in foster youth, kids learning English and students from low-income families has been well spent.

That concern has created a high-stakes confrontation with Gov. Jerry Brown, the formula’s architect, because his goal of shifting more responsibility to the local level means the state does not track basic information such as how much grant money each district gets for needy students or how it’s allocated.

“The state has spent tens of billions of dollars trying to lift poor kids and not one penny evaluating whether any of it is working,” said Bruce Fuller, an education policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “That’s outrageous.”

Brown, who once championed the new system as “revolutionary,” declined to grant an interview. Last month, speaking at a Capitol news conference, the governor defended the state’s limited role in monitoring the formula’s impact.

“We want the activists, the parents, the teachers to go to their local boards and put pressure on them. They can drive their own cars, park in the local parking lots and argue there,” he said, later adding “but if there is something that we need to handle, we will.”

Two years after the state adopted the new funding formula, it created new tests to measure student performance. Experts say it’s too early to draw sweeping conclusions from the new test scores in 2015 and 2016, but they’re troubled that the early results show little improvement for the neediest students and, in many cases, a widening achievement gap.

The CALmatters examination of the 15 largest school systems where nine out of 10 kids qualify for extra funding shows that serious problems remain. Large majorities of students in these districts, which are mostly in Southern California, still fail state tests. And although test scores are improving, the growth lags behind progress made by students not targeted by the new policy.

According to the analysis:

  • Almost all of the districts saw the gap between their low-income students’ proficiency in math and that of others across the state stay the same or grow larger. In reading, more than half the districts failed to nudge the gap.
  • English-learners enrolled in these school systems are even worse off. Gaps between their test scores and those of fluent students grew in both subjects. A few districts even saw those students’ passing rates decline.
  • Districts that responded to questions about their academic results touted improvements in raw “scale scores” that haven’t yet translated into higher levels of proficiency. But achievement gaps are growing in most of these places even when growth in raw scores is examined.

Santa Ana Deputy Superintendent David Haglund stressed the obstacles his students face: Many are Central American immigrants who arrive speaking no English, and often live with other families in crowded bungalows—doing homework on the floor or in a garage.

“Are we happy with the results? It’s a crazy question,” he said. “No, we always want to do better. We can do better. But we have to be reasonable and rational about our students’ environment.”

Disadvantaged students may not be improving more because some key changes haven’t occurred.

University of California, Berkeley researchers Bruce Fuller and JoonHo Lee examined whether the policy led more needy students to take courses requires to attend California’s public universities. Although some districts saw progress, it wasn’t evident in places with the most needy kids.

Another statewide study published by the nonprofit civil rights group Education Trust-West found that even under the new formula, low-income students still have far less access to support staff—including counselors, nurses and psychologists—and to key courses, such as calculus, physics and music.

“However we cut it, the funding higher poverty districts have received hasn’t translated into better opportunities for kids in lower-income schools,” study author Carrie Hahnel said.

When Brown overhauled school funding four years ago, he was responding to concerns that had been building for decades. Low-income students’ test scores had long lagged about 30 percentage points behind their peers. In addition, the state’s old “categorical” system for distributing money to public schools had for years frustrated advocates of all stripes.

Brown’s plan awards districts funding based on a formula and gives them more flexibility to determine how it’s spent. Since 2013, the state has distributed about $31 billion in grant funding for disadvantaged kids, according to estimates by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Once Brown, legislative leaders and key supporters settled on the formula’s framework, they turned their attention to rules for transparency and accountability. But the parties involved in those talks couldn’t reach agreement. So with a deadline looming to finalize the deal, they punted and left it up to the State Board of Education to craft the rules through regulation.

Democratic Assemblymembers Phil Ting of San Francisco and Shirley Weber of San Diego have been fighting for fiscal transparency alongside advocates for disadvantaged kids ever since. In 2014, the two lawmakers added a provision to the state budget that would have required each district to report the values of their supplemental and concentration grants separately.

But the Brown administration insisted that be deleted from the budget before lawmakers had a chance to vote on it.

The following year, Ting and Weber tried again, and Brown blocked their efforts a second time. He would only agree to impose more stringent fiscal reporting requirements in 2020, two years after he leaves office, when he says the Local Control Funding Formula will be fully phased in.

The policy called on state educators to intervene in any school district that failed to meet expectations in three out of four years. But the clock for possible state interventions wasn’t started until this year. In the meantime, the State Board of Education requires districts to file an annual Local Control and Accountability Plan with their county office of education, which will begin identifying failing school districts and offering assistance next school year.

“Are the extra resources reaching the populations we’re trying to help?” asked Ting, who chairs the Assembly Budget Committee. “Right now, we don’t know.”

The governor declined to answer any questions about his opposition to collecting spending figures now. State Board of Education President Michael Kirst said in a statement that it’s too early to fairly assess the formula’s performance, and that schools need more time to adapt to new tests and curricula.

“Drawing any kind of hard and fast conclusion about the success or failure of California’s massive shifts in the public education landscape based on only two years of test data would be irresponsible,” Kirst said.

Plus, the state just unveiled its new “dashboard,” which contains performance metrics for each of its more than 1,000 districts. It displays suspension rates, graduation rates, parent engagement, and scores from a new test, Smarter Balanced, that the state began in 2015 to evaluate student achievement.

But the dashboard lacks information about the money districts have received under the new policy.

Weber has been pushing legislation that would require the state to track and publish, broken down by type, the amount of federal state and local money given to each of California’s more than 10,000 public schools. Late last month, Assembly Bill 1321 cleared the state Assembly with unanimous support.

“There’s a lockdown on information,” said Weber, a former school board president. “It’s a major problem. And if the governor doesn’t solve this problem, we may have to dismantle this policy.”

None of the districts CALmatters studied has tracked its own spending as carefully as Greenfield Union in Bakersfield. It publishes a detailed, annual list of its investments in poor kids, foster youth and English learners.

Previously, the district’s finance and teaching teams hardly spoke and almost never collaborated, said Lori Aragon, assistant superintendent of curriculum. “The budget used to determine our needs,” she said. “Now, our needs determine the budget.” And for the first time, parents are helping the district identify those needs by sharing feedback at popular community meetings.

The strategy seems to be working.

Greenfield Union’s share of low-income students passing standardized reading and math tests grew by 9 and 7 percentage points, respectively—among the biggest gains of any district CALmatters analyzed, and well above the state’s average increase.

But as California’s booming economy slows and districts face rising pension and health care costs, the formula’s ability to drive change will weaken, meaning the state may have already seen the best of what it has to offer disadvantaged kids.

“That’s what has me concerned,” said researcher Hahnel. “The results we’ve seen so far aren’t commensurate with the investment we’ve made. Yes, change takes time, but that assumes we’re keeping our foot on the gas. Right now, it looks like we’re about to pull away.”

This is an abridged version of the complete story, which is available at CALmatters.org—a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.

  • verifiedsane

    Another government money pit rot with corruption and waste…..where billions disappear into thin air with no public accountability…Gov. moonbeam and his gang of thugs designed it this way….wake up California…Your on your way to being the next Illinois….

  • Right, like just throwing money at a problem will fix it. especially overnight or even in 5 years. Most likely it gets cut up between school administrators pet projects, perhaps at a new & improved staff jacuzzi as improvements to physical education. We all know that refreshed educators are better educators. Unless a child sees an advantage in education they will not be interested. Teaching tests is destined to fail everyone. So in the meantime, the poor can expect nothing from the wealthy rulers, (of any party).

  • MF22

    Unexpectedly!