Testimony to Select Committee on English Learners on March 26, 2012, by Carrie Hahnel, Director of Research and Policy on Weighted Student Formula
Select Committee on English Learners
Will the Weighted Student Formula Help English Learners?
Panel on Accountability and Monitoring
Good afternoon, Chairman, members of the committee. I’m Carrie Hahnel, Director of Policy and Research for The Education Trust—West. We are a nonprofit advocacy group focused on closing the opportunity and achievement gaps for low-income students and students of color. I would like to thank you for the opportunity to speak on such a critical topic for our states students.
I want to start by commenting on the current finance system, which we find to be inequitable.
In February of this year, The Education Trust—West released a report called The Cruel Divide, which revealed that Californias highest poverty districts—those with the largest concentrations of low-income students—receive $620 less per student from state and local sources than the states wealthiest districts. For a mid-sized school district of 6,000 students, that amounts to over $3.7 million per year. (See Attached, Slide 1)
This is despite nearly four decades of reforms aimed at making Californias school finance system more equitable.
These inequities can be traced back to three primary state education funding streams, which I’ll talk about in turn.
First, the revenue limits. While the revenue limit is meant to equally distribute a baseline level of funds, it doesn’t do so equally or equitably. In fact, wealthier districts receive about $875 more than poorer districts. The gap is more pronounced for high school and elementary districts than it is for unified districts.
Layered on top of these base funds, categorical dollars are intended to ensure equity by allocating additional funds to support high-need students. For this reason, school districts serving more high-need students tend to receive more of these categorical funds. Unfortunately, categorical dollars can be unevenly and irrationally distributed because of funding caps, historical precedents, and a variety of confusing conditions and requirements build into some of these programs. For example, wealthier districts actually get more Economic Impact Aid funding, per low-income or ELL pupil, than poorer district. This means that having high concentrations of poor and ELL student can reduce a districts per-pupil EIA funding the opposite of what the Gov.s proposal seeks to do. (See Attached, Slide 2)
Finally, we have local miscellaneous revenues, such as parent contributions, private donations, and parcel taxes. Low-wealth communities do not have the same capacity to raise funds as more affluent areas. In total, the wealthier districts raise about $570 more per pupil, locally, than the poorest districts.
Together, these variations in finding streams bring us to the $620 gap I started with.
While our report focused on differences by poverty, we also ran the numbers by English-language learner concentration. We compared districts with the most ELL students (at least 30%) to districts with the least (5% or less). The patterns are similar, although even more pronounced:
Districts with the most ELL students (those in the top quartile of ELL concentration) receive significantly less dollars per student than districts with the least ELL students, about $1,300 less. (See Attached, Slide 3)
Why are these differences more pronounced?
The revenue limit and local miscellaneous differences are similar to what we see when comparing high and low poverty districts. This makes sense, since 75-85% of ELL students are also high-poverty. (See Attached, Slide 4)
The biggest difference is in the categorical area. Seemingly, high-poverty districts are able to net more dollars per pupil through categorical aid than high-ELL districts.
At the same time, we should keep in mind that much of what a district receives today is based on what it used to receive. Many high-ELL districts didnt use to serve as many English learners. (See Attached, Slide 5) So a district may be receiving revenue limit and categorical aid more consistent with its old demographics than its current reality and student need levels.
How can the Gov.’s proposal better serve the highest need students, including ELs?
The proposal is an important step that must be taken to ensure that we equitably fund California students, including English learners, who comprise a quarter of our states students.
However, it is just a first step. We must focus on two additional things: 1) ensuring that schools, not just districts, are equitably funded, and 2) that dollars are used efficiently, smartly, and in a way that positively impacts student learning. (See Attached, Slide 6)
The Gov.’s proposal only addresses the way in which funds make their way to districts, not how they make their way to schools or students. Addressing school site funding and spending is critical.
We know from our prior research, as published in a report called The Hidden Teacher Spending Gap, that higher wealth schools have more experienced and therefore higher paid teachers. And because staff can account for 85% of a schools budget, this means that more affluent schools often end up with more money than poorer schools. At best, equality not equity is achieved. If the weights the Gov. is proposing dont flow to the school level, the highest need students may end up subsidizing their more advantaged peers.
The state can learn lessons from some districts across California. There are examples of districts that have sought to break the link between funding and poverty, implementing their own weighted funding formulas at the district level and passing the actual funds through to school sites, so that principals and school communities can decide how those funds can be used to meet the unique needs of their students.
For example, Twin Rivers Unified in Sacramento County has been using a WSF and site-based budgeting for the last few years. This has allowed school leaders, faculty, and parents to match their budgets with their individual school needs and priorities. For example, Madison Elementary is able to prioritize the needs of their English Learner population; they are choosing to hire retired teachers with expertise in literacy development, as needed, to provide one-on-one instruction for struggling EL students and midyear admits, in order to get them up to speed quickly.
LAUSD, similarly, has a pilot program in place that is offering about 100 schools greater flexibility over their budgets. About two dozen schools in that district are operating under a pure WSF, meaning that their entire budget is based on per-pupil allocations rather than staff allocations. Real teacher salaries, rather than averages, are taken into account. Oakland Unified has been implementing a similar program for several years now as well.
The state should strongly encourage districts to do what Twin Rivers, LAUSD, and Oakland have decided to do on their own. It can do this by offering an additional weight in the formula to districts that pass the low-income and ELL weights through to school sites. And then hold districts accountable for doing so.
Next, the state should develop a common accounting and reporting system, so that information on school spending is made public and is easily understood. These systems are essential to better inform and improve both local and state-level decision-making so that our educational system is responsive to our students’ needs. It should offer clear guidelines for what districts can bill and guidelines for what are central office versus school site expenditures so that both district-wide initiatives and school priorities are met. It should allow educators, policymakers, and the general public to compare spending across categories, such as expenses on supplies and instructional time, so we can make comparisons between districts all over the state. This is difficult to do with our current system since districts can bill the same item differently. For instance, we should be able to see what one middle school spends on math teachers compared with another school. Real salaries must be used, not averages. Also, expenditures should be viewed next to student achievement measures derived from a strong accountability system, so that we have better information about what investments seem to be paying off when it comes to student learning. Such information can foster cross-school and cross-district dialogue about strategies and investments that most positively impact students, particularly high-need learners. Note that these reporting improvements can be made with our without a new WSF.
In closing: Our English-language learners are inequitably funded in our current school finance system. Moving to a weighted student formula model will allow the state to better direct its available resources to the students who need them the most, and will set up a system that allows more dollars to flow to the highest need students, as new revenues become available. And with a strong accounting, reporting, and accountability system, we can have a model that allows leaders to make better-informed decisions on behalf of their students and that provides community members an understanding and a voice regarding the fiscal decisions made for their children.