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Is more education money helping California schools?

Despite new investments from the state, researchers found California school
Despite new investments from the state, researchers found California school "districts offer modest innovation in this first year."
Michael Buckner/Getty Images for UNICEF

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Education researchers say it's impossible to tell how California schools are spending new funds targeted at high-need students.

Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based advocacy group, analyzed the first year's impact of California's new Local Control Funding Formula, the budgeting process that's intended to bump up spending on low-income students, English learners and foster youth.

"Districts are not laying out plans and budgets that convincingly show that the kids who brought in the money are the kids who are getting the money," said Carrie Hahnel, director of research and policy analysis for the organization.

The new funding formula drew in an additional $137 million for high-need students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the state's largest district. KPCC reported some local parents and activists opposed former Superintendent John Deasy proposal to invest part of the funds in school police, custodians and IT support for the district's controversial iPad program.

The recession continues to impact California's classrooms. School administrators complain basic school services cut during the lean years have not been restored. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a research group that advocates for low-income families, calculated per-pupil spending in California last school year trailed pre-recession numbers by 17 percent.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed the local control funding formula law last year, giving schools cause to celebrate. The law mandated that districts develop plans showing how the new funding would help low-income students, English Learners and foster children.

But many of these plans are not connected to a district's overall budget, making it difficult to track if money earmarked for high-need students is being used to plug budget gaps, Hahnel said.

"If we aren't seeing more services, then it tells us that the dollars are being moved around in a creative way, potentially being used to fund pension obligations or rising staffing costs," she said.  Hahnel suggested school administrators connect plans and budgets for greater funding transparency. 

The report also recommended improving enforcement at county offices of education, which must approve district plans for high-need students.

"Many counties worked closely with their districts to strengthen their [plans]," according to the report. "However, some other counties provided little feedback and approved plans with noticeable errors."

The Los Angeles County Office of Education questioned Deasy's plan as critics pointed out that the district used more half of the money for the high-need students to shore up rising special education costs.  

Officials at L.A. Unified's argued four out of five special education students fall into one or more the targeted groups. County officials later approved the plan unchanged.

The Education Trust-West report said state officials could encourage investment in high-needs students by holding districts accountable to goals such as higher test scores, increased graduation or better attendance.

"What really matters is whether high-need students are achieving better results," according the report.