How much control does a school district really have when it comes to spending Local Control education funds?
A lawsuit filed last week in Los Angeles Superior Court alleges that improper accounting by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) shortchanges high needs students of funds they are entitled to receive under the Local Control Funding Formula.
The suit was filed by Public Advocates, Covington & Burling LLP and the ACLU of Southern California, on behalf of the Community Coalition of South Los Angeles and LAUSD parent Reyna Frias.
The Local Control Funding Formula, or LCFF, is designed to increase state education funds toward K-12 students who are either low-income, English-language learners or in the foster care system. Each year, school districts receive extra funding—known as supplementary and concentration grants—which attempt to close the gap between how much funding these populations of students currently receive and how much the formula says they should actually get.
According to the lawsuit, however, more than half of the $700 million the district reported spending on services for high needs students during the 2013-14 school year was actually spent on special education services instead. LAUSD has previously stated that they find this inclusion to be reasonable: 79 percent of the students in the district who receive special education services are also identified as low income, English learners or foster youth. In its statement on the lawsuit, the district says that the plaintiffs have misinterpreted the law:
“The Legislature clearly granted school districts — which serve predominantly low-income students, foster youth and English language learners — the highest degree of flexibility in determining student program needs.”
But the organizations behind the suit say this isn’t fair—LCFF funds are supposed to be used for services that specifically address learning challenges based on income, language and foster placement, and in addition to services that are already required by law, like special education. They argue that the district is artificially inflating how much it already spends on high needs students, thus reducing its funding obligations to these students by hundreds of millions of dollars for the following school years.
How does Local Control funding work?
To understand where the plaintiffs believe the district went wrong, we have to look a little closer at Local Control.
The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), which took effect in 2013, shifts the responsibility for the allocation of K-12 funding from the state to school districts. Unlike a traditional funding scheme, where a fixed number of dollars is granted to districts per number of students enrolled, the LCFF includes three types of grants, which are designed to provide a greater portion of state education dollars to disadvantaged students.
Under the LCFF, in addition to the traditional, per-student base grants, school districts receive a “supplemental grant,” equal to 20 percent of the base grant, per student who is an English language learner, low-income or in the foster care system. Districts like LAUSD, where more than 55 percent of enrolled students meet one or more of these criteria, also receive a “concentration grant” equal to 50 percent of the base, for every student above the 55 percent line.
Put simply, LCFF is based on the idea that some student populations face greater challenges to their education than others, and thus deserve a greater share of state funds. This was the logic invoked by Governor Jerry Brown when he first proposed the formula back in January of 2013:
“This formula recognizes the fact that a child in a family making $20,000 a year or speaking a language different from English or living in a foster home requires more help,” Brown said. Equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice.”
Because 84 percent of LAUSD’s enrolled students meet one or more of the targeted criteria, the district qualifies for over one billion dollars in supplemental and concentration grants per year.
There’s a catch, however. The LCFF determines a target amount for allocating funding to schools. But districts can’t meet their funding targets until the state increases education spending enough to cover the costs. The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that won’t be until at least 2020. In the meantime, the Board of Education has introduced a graduated funding scheme, which awards those districts furthest away from meeting their targets larger annual increases in funding. The amount of money a school receives in grants for high-needs students is thus determined by the district’s expenditures on services for these students the year before.
Keeping districts accountable
As a condition of their increased authority over the use of funds, school districts across the state are required by law to adopt a “Local Control and Accountability Plan” (LCAP), which outlines district-specific goals, and the actions and expenditures necessary to meet those goals. This is also where districts calculate how much money they are already spending on services for students targeted by LCFF.
What counts as “services” is where the district and the plaintiffs disagree. According to regulations passed by the State Board of Education, school districts are required to use supplemental and concentration grant funds specifically to “increase or improve services” for the students targeted by these grants. There are a multitude of services in which schools might choose to invest in order to support these particular students, such as instructional support, after-school care, health education, trauma-informed counseling, safety training, English learner coaches, parent liaisons or professional development for staff.
According to the lawsuit, however, special education isn’t one of them. Rather, it is a distinct spending need the district should already be addressing.
“If the lawsuit prevails,” an ACLU statement said, “special education students would still receive the same level of services they are now, but LAUSD would be required to invest more money to develop new or improved services for high need students targeted under LCFF, who make up 84 percent of the district’s student population.”
The Court’s decision in this case may thus set a precedent for how the state, and schools, is expected to respond to the intersecting learning challenges facing so many of L.A.’s students.
For more information on the Local Control Funding Formula and the LAUSD suit, see the following resources:
LCFF Frequently Asked Questions, California Department of Education
“A Primer on the LAUSD LCFF Spending Case,” Public Advocates
Information used in the writing of this article was taken in part from materials prepared by the California Budget and Policy Center.