Survey measures effects of school funding change

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Last year, California legislators made an unprecedented change to public school funding. They removed restrictions on dozens of funding sources so school districts could use that money to balance budgets soaked with red ink. The state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office released survey results that shed light on the effects of the change.

To balance its budget last year, the small Lennox School District near Los Angeles International Airport moved maintenance and gifted education money to pay for other expenses, said Superintendent Bruce McDaniel.

"Some of that money we left for programs for gifted students, some of that money we shifted into the general fund," he said.

The Lennox district and any other in the state couldn’t have done that the year before. For the next three years school districts can shift from all but 20 sources known as categorical funds.

Rachel Ehlers with the California Legislative Analyst Office said school district leaders who responded generally liked the new flexibility around these previously restricted pots of money.

"About one in five responding districts have stopped running the art and music block grant program, grades 7-12 school counseling, and community based English tutoring," Ehlers said.

The survey didn’t measure whether doing away with programs affects students and their families. Some school district leaders said that having the flexibility to shift money around made their fiscal decisions tougher.

Margaret Weston, a researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California, said flexibility over categorical funds still needs improvement.

"What would have been ideal, I think is if we had a statewide data system where we could assess if these programs were working, you know which ones should be in, which ones should be out," Weston said.

The changes expire in three years.

Political debate will likely focus on which categorical funds should remain on the list.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office recommends lawmakers give school district officials flexibility to move around money that keeps class sizes smaller in kindergarten through third grades.