School Districts Shortchange Disadvantaged Students
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School Districts Shortchange Disadvantaged Students

Without transparent funding and school-level financial data available, it is impossible for parents and the public to account for taxpayer dollars going to education.

California Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2016-17 budget proposal calls for spending nearly $72 billion on K-12 education, equal to more than $10,500 per student. Education represents California’s largest budget item, accounting for more than 40 percent of the state’s General Fund resources. Yet, there is little clarity in how these taxpayer funds are actually spent.

Following that money all the way to schools and classrooms is still extremely difficult. And that information is critical for numerous reasons.

Research has consistently revealed that school districts distribute funds unevenly among schools. An Education Trust-West study released in 2012 found that almost all of California’s 20 largest school districts have significant funding gaps between their high-poverty and low-poverty schools. For example, teachers in Garden Grove Unified School District’s most well-off schools were paid an average of $3,063 more per year than teachers in the district’s most disadvantaged schools.

Since most school districts still use antiquated budgeting practices that charge schools an average of districtwide salaries, instead of charging schools the exact amount of their actual staff salaries, this results in low-income schools subsidizing high-income schools, which tend to attract more experienced, higher-earning teachers.

A recent example of this can be found within Santa Ana Unified. Valley High School has higher percentages of socioeconomically disadvantaged students and English Language Learners than Saddleback High School, yet Valley receives about $850 less per pupil, and their teachers are paid $4,081 less on average. There is no clear explanation for this difference.

Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland provides an excellent case study for Orange County and California to learn from. When the Montgomery County Office of Legislative Oversight conducted a study scrutinizing the district’s funding practices, it found rampant inequities: The district spends about 31 percent of the funds that are supposed to be earmarked for low-income students on unrelated programs. Low-income students are also more likely to have less-experienced, cheaper teachers than high-income students, the report found.

Quite simply, the report showed that Montgomery County Public Schools is shortchanging its disadvantaged students. The study recommended that the district explore student-based budgeting, where districts allot a set amount of money for each student and send it directly to schools.

Similarly, school districts in Orange County should thoroughly assess funding practices to identify the degree to which inequities currently exist. They should then implement student-based budgeting as part of increased transparency and more equitable funding.

State officials also have a role to play. Districts should be required to report comprehensive school-level financial data in an accessible format, as is required in states such as Texas. Without transparent funding and school-level financial data available, it is impossible for parents and the public to account for taxpayer dollars going to education.

Aaron Garth Smith is an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation.