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June 21, 2013
Editorial: State needs to track school-level spending

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(June 21 -- By the Editorial Board)

Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators made history in overhauling California's antiquated, confusing system for funding public schools. Now what? The work of legislating implementation remains urgent.

If schools spend funding allocated for disadvantaged students for other purposes, how would anyone know? Legislators have not yet provided a mechanism for tracking how much money students generate for each school and, most important, how much each school actually gets from a district.

Without such school-level tracking, parents, community members, school boards and legislators cannot hold school districts accountable for ensuring that additional dollars for low-income and English learner students actually get spent on their needs.

Without legislation, the forces that always get the money will continue to get it - the "squeaky wheel" phenomenon. Upper-middle-class parents will demand resources and get them. Teachers, in the collective bargaining process, will put pressure on for higher salaries and hiring of more teachers.

If this happens the new formula will be a failure, nothing different from what we already have.

Currently, districts report spending using the Standardized Account Code Structure. But results are reported only at the district level. The system has codes for school-level reporting, but they are voluntary. Lawmakers need to pass legislation pronto to change that.

Districts already have experience with school-level reporting. All states, including California, that received federal stimulus money for schools under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act were required to report a school-by-school listing of per-student spending - actual salaries of principals, teachers, counselors, nurses, librarians and other staff, plus spending on professional development, instructional materials and technology.

The Legislature has to require uniform collection and public reporting of school-level spending on the state's website. No more reporting of average teacher salaries, which masks inequities between schools.

Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, favors school-level reporting and is working on getting this done.

Another major issue is how to phase out remaining "categorical" funds that are distributed inequitably based on historical patterns rather than current need. The big one is the $855 million Targeted Instructional Improvement Grants. Though Los Angeles Unified has 11 percent of the state's students, it gets 67 percent of this funding ($460 million).

Legislators should attend to these issues now, not let them linger. Otherwise districts will fall into "same old, same old" patterns of spending.

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