School Finance Reform and Low-Income Students

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Never has school lunch meant so much for California education.


Delivering significantly more money to schools based on the number of low-income children they serve is at the heart of the sweeping new K-12 finance system approved by the state Legislature in June. The new system defines “low income” as those students eligible for the school’s free and reduced-price meals program.


But two months into the rollout of the reforms, which Gov. Jerry Brown praised as a victory for the neediest students, two of the largest districts – Los Angeles Unified and Fresno Unified – are in a dispute with the state over a last-minute change in how children who receive free meals are counted. Instead of moving into the school year confident of how much new funding they’ll receive for low-income students, the two districts, as well as scores of other districts in the state, are now being asked to submit new data from hundreds of thousands of low-income families before the funding will be released.


“We didn’t bargain for this and we were not told this,” said John Deasy, superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District, the state’s largest district with more than 650,000 students, more than half of whom – 384,000 students – attend 466 district schools that are being asked to certify low-income students again. If the demand for new paperwork jeopardizes funding for needy children in any way, after years of work to pass Proposition 30 to fund education and to pass the new education finance system, Deasy said, there will be an outcry from educators, advocates, students, parents and legislators. “People will become unglued,” he said.

Counting heads

The dispute originated in a California Department of Education statement in August that it would no longer accept meal eligibility data used for decades by the federal government at a subset of schools that serve high percentages of low-income families. The state’s rejection of the data is being “hotly contested” in conversations between the district, the California Department of Education and the governor’s office, Deasy said. “We have been documenting poverty for years,” he said, and the federal data requirements are “an absolutely legitimate way to document poverty.”


The August announcement sent districts into a panic because they believed they had to have the new low-income student certification data by Oct. 2, the annual “census day” when schools must provide a comprehensive count of their student body to the state. But the state has clarified its information and has said that schools can correct the documentation of low-income students through Feb. 6, 2014.


At issue are two different methods used by the federal government to track low-income students eligible for free and reduced-price meals. The first method, used by the vast majority of schools, reports eligible students by their individual student identification numbers every year. The second method, used by 1,529 schools in high-poverty neighborhoods in the state, reports students individually once every four years and then uses that “base year” data to create a percentage of eligible students.


But with hundreds of millions of dollars of funding for low-income students on the line, the California Department of Education says it needs current data on low-income students.


“It’s one thing to do a rough estimate (based on numbers collected every four years), and it’s a much different thing when you have to calculate how much money to give to schools,” said Keric Ashley, director of the Analysis, Measurement and Accountability Reporting Division in the California Department of Education. (Full Story)




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