California’s Schools Are Failing Black Students
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California’s Schools Are Failing Black Students

Statewide, large achievement gaps between black and white students persist in all subjects.

The Nation’s Report Card on education is in and the news isn’t great —with most states receiving low marks in the latest round of National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) exams that measure student achievement.

California’s scores were largely flat compared to 2017, the last time NAEP was administered, except for a troubling decline in 8th grade reading, from 263 to 259, that mirrored the nationwide trend.  But the news is much worse for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

LAUSD was one of 27 districts participating in the Trial Urban District Assessments program. The beleaguered district saw statistically significant declines in both 8th-grade reading and math, and it scored well below average in all four tests.

For its part, Fresno Unified School District’s results were similarly concerning—ranking near the bottom in every test—leaving San Diego Unified School District as the state’s lone bright spot, with it showing gains in three-of-four subjects including the highest 8th-grade reading scores in the country.

While NAEP data provide a useful gauge of student achievement and allow for meaningful comparisons, caution must be exercised in interpreting the results. For example, no one can say for sure why California’s 8th graders lost a chunk of their reading gains from previous years or whether this is just a year blip in the trend. But one thing can be said with absolute certainty: California is failing its black students.

Statewide, large achievement gaps between black and white students persist in all subjects— with an astounding 41 point difference in 8th-grade math and a 38 point difference in 8th-grade reading. To put this in perspective, researchers often equate 10 points as roughly one year’s worth of learning. Even San Diego Unified, which made a bit of progress on this front, has gaps that reach as high as 40 points in 4th-grade math.

Clearly this is unacceptable. So what can policymakers do to boost achievement for California’s black students? There’s no silver bullet and meaningful reforms are especially difficult during these polarized times. But there is a bipartisan policy that can help move the ball forward for black communities, schools, and their students: financial transparency.

In recent years California has injected billions of new dollars into its public education system, but this money isn’t always reaching the students it is intended for. A recent study by researchers at Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab suggests that many school districts are shortchanging their highest-poverty schools, which often have high concentrations of black students. This finding aligns with previous research showing that school district allocation formulas are inherently unfair to low-income communities.

In the past, it’s been difficult to hold district officials accountable for this because school-level financial data aren’t readily available. But this is about to change as the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will soon require states to shine a light on these figures. For the first time, parents and other stakeholders will have access to information that empowers them to ask critical questions about district finances. For example, what schools are receiving more resources than others? And how much is spent on specific programs?

But federal requirements only go so far and policymakers need to ensure that financial data are easy to access and presented with meaningful context. California can go above-and-beyond ESSA’s baseline requirements by creating a robust tool that publicly reports school-level spending trends by spending category and student type. Edunomics Lab’s Marguerite Roza even suggests pairing spending data with academic outcomes to see what schools are getting the most bang for the buck compared to those with similar student populations.

There’s no doubt that California is failing to provide black students with the education they deserve. Now is a great time for policymakers to let parents and the public see whether districts are giving these students their fair share of the funding pie. Robust financial transparency isn’t a panacea but it would help put all students and schools on an equal financial footing, which is something that all policymakers should support.

This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

Aaron Garth Smith is the director of education reform at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.