When California inaugurated a new school funding formula in 2013, Gov. Jerry Brown wanted to do more than restore money the state's public schools had lost to deep recession-era budget cuts.
The governor hoped to level the playing field for three high-need groups in the state's schools — low-income students, English Learners, and foster youth. The new "Local Control Funding Formula" called for billions of new dollars for school districts who serve these children.
But in the Los Angeles Unified School District, a coalition of "equity advocates" led by the United Way of Greater L.A. have questioned for years whether this new state funding — a total of $3.8 billion over the last four years — is reaching campuses serving the largest numbers of kids in these high-need groups.
On Monday, members of the coalition released a new, school-by-school analysis that they say provides fresh evidence to back up their concerns.
"This is a good news-bad news story," explained UC Berkeley education professor Bruce Fuller, whom the United Way and coalition members contracted to crunch L.A. Unified's budget data.
The elementary and middle schools are the "bad news," Fuller said.
In 2015-16, high-need students comprised more than 90 percent of the student bodies at 269 of L.A. Unified's 400-plus elementary schools. But per-student spending on these highest-need campuses still lags behind spending on 139 campuses where between 60 and 90 percent of the student body fits the state's definition of high-need, according to the coalition's report.
In fact, since the 2012-13 school year, 31 elementary campuses with the smallest concentrations of high-need students saw larger increases in their per-pupil spending than the neediest campuses.
And in middle schools, the coalition notes after an initial uptick in spending in the highest-need campuses, spending has since flattened out.
"By regressively allocating funds to elementary and middle schools," Fuller said, "by the tea leaves, we don’t see any likelihood the achievement gaps will narrow for young children."
Fuller said the advocates would prefer to see L.A. Unified officials "progressively" allocate this influx of state funding by sending more money to schools serving the largest numbers of high-need students.
Advocates say they've observed this progressive allocation at the district's high school campuses — that's the "good news," Fuller said. Since California inaugurated its new school funding formula in 2013, the 35 high schools with the largest high-need student populations have seen their per-pupil spending increase by nearly 50 percent.
"We have seen gains," said the United Way's Sara Mooney, who worked to shape the report's policy recommendations in coordination with the other groups in the coalition, known as "CLASS" (Communities for Los Angeles Student Success).
"I don’t think it’s fair to totally bash on the district and say, 'Nothing has changed, how dare they,' because they have made strides," Mooney said. "But they can do much better."
Officially, L.A. Unified officials' response to the report was measured. In a statement, superintendent Michelle King said she welcomed the coalition's feedback and said "the issue of equity among all of our schools has always been front and center."
"However," her statement continued, "we must acknowledge that many of our campuses, especially our middle and high schools, were severely impacted by the Great Recession" — and that the district has done its best to restore positions and programs that were once cut, particularly in schools serving "high-percentages" of high-need students.
The district's defenders also point out that there are very few L.A. Unified schools where high-need students make up a low percentage of the student body. According to Fuller's data, in 375 of the district's 400-plus elementary schools, at least three-quarters of the student population are foster youth, English learners or from low-income households.
And that definition of "high-needs" doesn't include special education, which the state funds through a separate formula.
This is a sticky subject: L.A. Unified currently faces a lawsuit from advocacy groups — including the Community Coalition of South L.A., a member of the CLASS coalition — who say school officials erred by including a share of the district's spending on special education programs toward its total of spending on "high-need" students. (The CLASS coalition is not a part of the suit.)
The plaintiffs charge the district's allegedly-errant calculation meant L.A. Unified officials diminished the amount they had to spend on low-income, English learners or foster kids. However, the district has pointed out nearly 80 percent of special education students are also low-income, English learners or foster kids.
That's important context, said Rachel Greene, a past chairperson of L.A. Unified’s Parent Advisory Committee. Despite costly and comprehensive mandates from the state and federal government, special education programs are dramatically underfunded, she said.
"It’s kind of like the district can’t win," said Greene.
Even if the district decided to send less of the extra money to elementary schools with relatively-smaller concentrations of high-need students, Greene noted the handful of high-need students in those schools would suffer.
"What are their parents supposed to do?" Greene said. "Are they supposed to follow those dollars to another school, which increases segregation and takes them away from their neighborhood school or the school that’s close to where their parents work? And is there a concomitant benefit to the schools that receive pennies on the dollar when you distribute that money back out to schools with higher need?"
But Fuller said the district can do more to free up funds to spend on high-need students so that the game isn't quite so zero-sum.
Officials could restructure the district's pension plans or reexamine the district's generous health benefits offerings, he suggested. Fuller also said California voters' passage of Proposition 55, which extended an income tax hike that benefits public schools, could also yield gains for L.A. Unified's budget.
"I do think the superintendent's office is a little disingenuous when they cry poverty," he said, "and say there's not going to be any more … funding" through the state formula.
Beyond distributing resources to the schools with the highest concentrations of high-need students, the report's authors make other recommendations. They say L.A. Unified is in desperate need of a methodology for identifying which programs and models are working in the district's schools.
The report also notes L.A. Unified school principals "report unpredictable fluctuations in their budgets year to year," incentivizing them to spend any budget surpluses on "big-ticket items like technological equipment" rather than on teachers or other long-term reform strategies.
The authors suggest the district ought to offer more coaching for L.A. Unified principals on how they can best spend additional state money when it appears in their budgets.