California funding model boosted options for LA high-schoolers, but disparities remain

Dive Brief:

  • With California’s weighted student funding formula, adopted in 2013, high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District saw lower class sizes, more options for elective courses and lighter class loads for teachers, according to a new University of California, Berkeley, study released Thursday.
  • But with the “hiring surge,” made possible by additional funding through the Local Control Funding Formula, novice teachers were “unevenly assigned” to English learners, and the gaps in achievement between ELs and fluent English speakers — those no longer classified as ELs — widened over the five-year period examined by the study.
  • The percentages of fluent English speakers exceeding state standards in English language arts increased in both low- and high-poverty schools. “But ELs, already performing at low levels, drifted even lower,” the researchers wrote. In addition, many of the new course options did not offer credit that would qualify students for admission to the state’s two public university systems.

Dive Insight:

Conducted by sociologist Bruce Fuller and doctoral student Joon-Ho Lee, the paper delves into the decisions LAUSD made as the state decentralized funding, making additional amounts above the base allocation available for ELs, students from low-income families and students in foster care.

“Overall, these findings accent the importance of theorizing not only whether district leaders fairly distribute new revenues among schools, but also how new monies alter the staffing or social organization of campuses,” they wrote.

The Local Control Funding Formula is just one example of how states have “served to close wide disparities in per-pupil spending among districts, independent of a community’s wealth,” the study said.

As more districts and states adopt weighted student funding models, federally funded research at Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab, led by Marguerite Roza, is showing wide variation in how policymakers and officials design these formulas, how much of a district’s total budget is distributed through the formula, and which student subgroups receive more funding. 

In a Q&A last year, Roza suggested examining whether weighted funding formulas are “increasing equity and outcomes for poor and at-risk students” — the aim of the Berkeley researchers — is the next level of research. Because of the differences in the models from district to district, however, it’s difficult to make generalizations about what they are accomplishing.

A statewide model might provide better opportunities for researchers to study the effectiveness of weighted formulas. Fuller and Lee suggest, however, if such policies “prove unable to narrow disparities in learning, we may see the pendulum swing back to centralized, highly regulated interventions.” 

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