Responding to years of pressure by Los Angeles community and education advocates, LA Unified next month may commit to funding schools based on a new ranking that gives priority to those with the highest-need students.
Nearly $140 million in new funding is expected to flow to the district in the next two years as part of California Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to fully fund his Local Control Funding Formula. Advocates want to make sure those dollars get to the students who are furthest from meeting academic standards and live with the most challenges.
With that money, “LAUSD has an historic opportunity to develop bold investments” by ensuring that the “dollars target its highest and high needs schools first,” states the “Equity is Justice 2.0” resolution that will be presented to the school board Tuesday, for a vote in May.
The resolution, from school board President Mónica García, designates a new “Student Equity Need Index” as the rubric for determining how public funds are divided among schools. The first index was created in 2014 but didn’t include academic performance or community factors, nor was it used to direct most funding.
The new “2.0 version” of the index, which was previewed for board members on March 20 and will be completed this month, will largely use academic indicators to rank schools — something neither California nor Los Angeles is currently doing.
The index will also use health and safety data to assess student need, such as asthma rates and community violence and trauma, as well as poverty levels and the number of English learners.
García’s resolution directs the district to “immediately allocate the $100 million LCFF funds” to schools that the index lists as most in need, particularly elementary schools.
The lower a school’s test scores and the more challenges its students face, the higher it will rank on the priority list for new funding.
Interim Superintendent Vivian Ekchian said at the March meeting that she intends to identify 50 schools from the first index for immediate support, including $250,000 each for the new school year.
These 50 schools would presumably also make it onto a list of the most struggling schools in California, which would make them eligible for even more support. States must identify the lowest 5 percent of schools to qualify for federal funding under the Every Student Succeeds Act, but state officials have not finalized how they will identify these schools. The state Board of Education is meeting next week on the issue.
Ekchian said the district will be cautious in how it refers to the 50 schools on the list that are slated for the immediate aid. “If we label them, they live with that profile. People need to understand it’s more support and more resources. It’s not a sign of failure.”
Before the board resolution was posted, a statement from the district’s budget office said the index “would drive the elementary school proposal mentioned by the Superintendent in 2018-19. The current application of the Student Equity Need Index (not 2.0) would be utilized for other resources in 2018-19, while the Superintendent and Board of Education continue to explore options for a broader application of the SENI 2.0 within the context of current budget priorities in the following fiscal years.”
The equity index was created by the Los Angeles Equity Alliance comprised of Advancement Project, Community Coalition, and InnerCity Struggle. The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which runs 18 public schools, was among advocates at the March board meeting urging the district to adopt the new index and to use it to determine which schools get funded.
In a report on the first equity index, the Partnership noted that only a quarter of a percent of LA Unified’s $8 billion operating budget last year was allocated based on a school’s ranking on the index. And in many cases, schools that ranked lower on the index — meaning they had fewer high-needs students — received more supplemental funding per student than several of the highest-need schools in the district.
“We encourage LA Unified to use the new student need index (SENI 2.0) to develop an equity-based funding formula that provides more resources to schools serving the city’s highest-need communities, and allows schools flexibility to make budget decisions that reflect their unique circumstances,” said Adam Fletcher, senior operations director and general counsel for the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools. “We also are recommending that one-time surplus funds anticipated from the state for the 2018–19 school year be prioritized to support the district’s highest-need elementary schools, which provide the foundation for students’ academic careers but currently have the least amount of supplemental resources to address student needs.”
García said at the March meeting that not all LA Unified schools are “set up to serve all students well. There’s bias or preference in our current funding model. What we’re trying to address through the equity index is to achieve a balance.”
Maria Brenes, executive director of InnerCity Struggle, said in an interview that the previous version of the index “didn’t go far enough identifying the highest-need schools” and increasing their funding. She applauded the inclusion of academic and community indicators in how schools will be ranked in the new index as well as “the inclusion of special education students cut by poverty. We heard from our stakeholders the need to include special needs students” in the formula, she said.
She stressed the urgency for the district to adopt the equity index now as its funding model. “From the stakeholders we’ve engaged in the community, parents, and students there’s a lot of excitement around” the index, Brenes said. “We want these schools to better support the students that are attending them.”