Our country, our state, and our city have a long and ugly history of funding Los Angeles schools insufficiently and inequitably. These disparities apply to annual funding as well as stand alone funding opportunities, including COVID relief funds. The consequences of these decisions are profound. Teachers and students are forced to teach and learn without the resources they need to be successful. We know that a lack of appropriate tools (dollars and staff and academic and non-academic supports) for student success can lead to poor teaching conditions and then teacher turnover. Without sustainable, adequate funding, districts are forced to live hand-to-mouth and cannot focus on long-term, strategic planning. As a result, limited funds may be spent ineffectively.
Los Angeles teachers know that equitable opportunity begins with equitable access to resources.
As educators, every day we see how inequitable access to resources negatively impacts our students. When we talk about resources, funding is foundational, but equally important is access to excellent educators, a challenging and culturally relevant curriculum, safe and healthy schools, wraparound services, and social and emotional learning supports. Unfettered access to these building blocks of education must be accessible to all students, not subject to partisan politics or deeply influenced by zip code and institutional racism.
While the list of factors impacting students’ educational outcomes that school districts have little control over is lengthy – e.g., physical health, violence, family income levels – funding is a place where the government (local, state, and federal) has near-complete authority. Research validates what we know already from practice – resources matter. There is mounting evidence showing that greater spending leads to better student outcomes. A recent meta analysis by C. Kirabo Jackson and Claire Mackevicius, which looked at 31 studies of the impact of K-12 funding on students’ academic outcomes came to this important conclusion: Our estimates suggest that a policy that increases per-pupil spending for four years will improve test scores and/or educational attainment over 90 percent of the time.”
Students living and going to school in high-poverty communities have less access to the academic resources with the most impact on student outcomes, including high-quality teachers, rigorous curriculum, and strong early childhood education. (Source: Center for American Progress). The variation in funding levels is dramatic. Nationally, the Education Trust found the gap in spending (per student) between highest poverty and lowest poverty districts to be ~$1,200. When looking at inequities by race they found a gap of ~$2,000 per student between districts serving the most students of color and those serving the least students of color. Former Baltimore City Superintendent Andres Alonso hit the nail on the head when he said: “Fair Student Funding is not about budgets. It is about equity, freedom, and accountability…”
What is weighted student funding?
Historically – and in many parts of the country still – education is funded on a per pupil basis through a combination of local, state, and federal funds. School budgets are largely driven by the number of students at the school and funding does not take into account specific student or community needs. Rather than this one-size-fits-all approach, weighted student funding (also known as fair student funding, student-based budgeting, or student-based allocation) assigns funds to students based upon their specific needs. Starting with a base amount of per-pupil funding, dollars are added based upon categories of student needs including English language learners, low-income households, Special Education, etc. The Education Law Center, which closely monitors and reports on education funding, explains it this way: “Fair funding has two basic components: a sufficient level of funding for all students and increased funding for high-poverty districts to address the additional cost of educating students in those districts. These two components are dependent on a third: the effort made by state legislatures to provide sufficient revenue to support the public school system.”
While an increasing number of districts and states are using funding formulas to allocate at least a portion of their funds, there is great variation in the design of these formulas from specific dollar amounts to which student characteristics are given weight. Dr. Marguerite Roza and team looked at the 30 largest school districts in the country and found a range from zero to 89% of education dollars allocated via a funding formula, with an average of 40% in the 21 largest districts that have any type of formula in place.
The LA Context
Historically, LAUSD schools have been poorly and unevenly funded with Black, Latinx, and low-income students clustered in schools receiving insufficient resources.
LAUSD is the second-largest public school system in the country with ~600,000 students at 1,000 schools. More than 80% of LAUSD students meet the federal qualification for free and reduced lunch. Overall, between July 2018 – June 2021 LAUSD spent ~$24B. Regardless of the size of the overall budget, schools serving the lowest income students continue to operate without the resources they need – funds, staff (teaching and non-teaching), curricular materials, and physical space. Additionally, these schools continue to be clustered in the southern, central, and eastern parts of the district (see map) where they serve a largely Latinx and Black student population.
These economic deficits are reflected in painful disparities in student achievement across the city. In the 2020-21 school year, 43% of all LAUSD students met or exceeded the state standards for math (as measured by the CAASPP) while these rates were 26% for African-American students, 31% for Latinx students, 15% for English language learners, 34% for low-income students, and 15% for students with disabilities. The pandemic has had deleterious impacts for all students, but the recently released 2020 CAASPP results show that ELA and math scores fell (or made tiny improvements) for Black, Latinx, and low-income students. The grim reality is that current and future pandemic-related learning losses will be most significant for Black, Latinx, and low-income students and will have significant and possibly dramatic impacts on their future opportunities, including earnings.
Seventy-six percent of LAUSD’s budget comes from the state of California. State-wide changes to state income tax (Proposition 13 in particular) and sales tax laws have dramatically impacted education funding, so much so that California fell from the top five of highest-spending states to the near bottom (ranking 43rd in 2019). Landmark legal cases were fought and won based upon the inequitable distribution of education funding across the state, but the dramatic disparities in funding have been pernicious and hard to undo.
With the goals of a more equitable distribution of funds across the state, greater flexibility to govern these dollars at the local level, and an acknowledgment that students with higher needs require and deserve additional funding, the state of California adopted and enacted the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) in the 2013-4 school year. LCFF was a crucial step in the right direction and has produced real change in cross-district funding levels, staffing levels (e.g., librarians, counselors), and rigorous curriculum offerings, however, resource inequities persist and continue to impact Black, Latinx, and low-income students disproportionately. There is tempered hope to be found in this state-wide funding formula: “In the 2004-2005 school year, the districts with the highest poverty rates received $653 less per student than those with the lowest poverty rates; by 2015-2016, the poorer districts were getting $334 more than their counterparts.” In the same breath, ongoing research efforts show us that students in California are still in need of much more funding. The American Institutes for Research estimated that California needed to spend a third more (roughly $25.6B) than it did in the 2016-7 school year to actually meet the needs of all of its students.
Los Angeles Funding Formula – the Student Equity Needs Index (SENI)
What is the Student Equity Need Index (SENI)?
“With recent budget changes, we have an opportunity to catch up on providing resources that schools are currently lacking. This is a rare chance to advocate for money to be spent in places and for students that may have been overlooked in recent years.” Misti Kemmer, an elementary school educator and E4E-Los Angeles member.
SENI is a funding formula used in Los Angeles that ranks all K-12 schools from those with the highest needs to those with the lowest needs with the goals of equity, transparency, and allowing those closest to the students greater control over how education funds are spent. SENI is designed around four principles: 1) equity, 2) transparency, 3) fairness, and 4) stability and feasibility. Each school in LA receives a SENI score based on three categories:
1) Academic (45%) — e.g., 1st grade preliminary literacy test
2) School demographics (45%) – e.g., percent homeless youth
3) School climate (10%) – e.g., suspension rates
SENI funds are controlled by the principal and are intended to support expenditures that will have a direct impact on student need and can include staffing (such as psychiatric social workers and attendance counselors), teacher planning time, and new or ongoing programs that support specific students such as English language learners.
First introduced in the 2014-5 school year – when it was applied to a small portion of the district’s overall budget – SENI was revamped (as SENI 2.0) and the updated index was implemented in the 2018-19 school year. As reported by the Partnership for LA Schools, SENI 1.0 controlled less than 1% of LAUSD’s overall budget ($19.3M out of a then $8B) and was riddled with errors that often resulted in lower need schools receiving more supplemental funding than higher need schools.
There was a groundswell of criticism from students, community members, and advocates, which was instrumental in LAUSD’s move to reassess SENI and make significant improvements to its design. SENI 2.0, unanimously approved by the School Board, introduced a greater number of student weights (more than 12) including current test scores and asthma rates with the hopes of further refining, better understanding, and funding specific student needs.
The percentage of funds that are allocated via SENI has grown dramatically and quickly. Going from $282M to $700M from the 2020-2021 school year to the current school year; SENI now controls approximately 7.2% of the annual LAUSD budget. These swift and significant changes reflect mounting pressure from community and education advocates and acknowledgment of the urgent need for funding to meet specific needs of students and begin to address the long and painful history of inequitable and inadequate funding for Black, Latinx, and low-income students in LA. Current SENI weights and school designations are available on the LAUSD website as well as school-level plans for the use of SENI funds.
SENI Implementation & Overall Resource Equity for LAUSD students
The proof is in the pudding: LA teachers encourage the ongoing and transparent review and improvement of SENI based upon quantitative and qualitative data from implementation.
More money for low-income students and schools is an essential first step, but what these funds are actually spent on is equally important. Much to LAUSD’s credit, the board has hired the American Institutes of Research (AIR) to evaluate SENI, paying particular attention to: 1) how schools use SENI funding, 2) how the district supports principals as they use SENI funding, 3) how school leadership, teaching staff, student needs, and community support influence how SENI funds are used, 4) how SENI funds are used to support classroom instruction, and 5) what is the relationship between SENI spending and student needs and outcomes. Preliminary findings have been made public. Of note, AIR found principals need more guidance on how to spend SENI dollars in ways that will most support low-income students, schools need support to include families in the budgeting process, and SENI – overall – could be simplified.
Education budgeting has historically been a byzantine, secretive process, poorly understood by nearly all parties. LAUSD has made recent strides towards clarity and transparency in this regard including the creation of a task force to monitor SENI (to be announced by June 2022), a slate of frequent community engagement meetings, and direct sharing of SENI information and data on its website.
E4E-Los Angeles believes LAUSD should ensure SENI lives up to its promise by:
- Supporting schools to effectively use SENI funds in evidence-based ways that will have the greatest impact on students. (LAUSD has recently agreed to create an evidence-based menu of options – based upon student outcomes – for schools to select and invest in.)
- Making it easy for schools and principals to share information and best practices about their SENI-funded efforts and their impact (or lack of) on student outcomes.
- Ensuring teachers, and particularly teachers from historically under-resourced schools, are well represented on the task force that is charged with reviewing SENI.
- Working with strong community partners to ensure families understand and are meaningfully engaged in school-level budgeting. (A recent effort called We Budget is a strong start.)
- Regularly and transparently reporting on SENI spending including school- and student-level data with a particular emphasis on what the funds are being spent on. (The creation of school dashboards with financial and student outcome data is a strong start.)
- Evaluating and updating SENI on an annual basis, ensuring the formula is designed to accurately tie funding to real student needs.
What actions must LAUSD take to ensure resource equity, not equality?
Increase the pie: A funding formula alone cannot fix the problem of inequitable resources.
Equity does not mean each student receives the same, equity means each student receives what they need. In the words of an E4E teacher: “The budget that is used at the school site should be 100% equity-based.”
We are heartened by LAUSD’s commitment to reversing decades of inequitable education funding and taking strides to remedy the severe under-funding of schools that serve predominantly Black, Latinx, and low-income students. However, even if SENI is implemented and refined with great care, it will not adequately address resource equity for LA’s students. Currently, California ranks 21st in per-pupil spending as compared with other states. The recent infusion of federal ARP ESSER funds has had a significant and positive impact on California’s education funding (last year and this year’s budgets). California has received $24B in federal education funding since the start of the pandemic – an unheard of infusion in funds – that has allowed for the long-overdue expansion of programs including after-school and summer. The 2022-3 budget proposal continues the upward trajectory; LAUSD estimates per-pupil spending has increased over the past three years from $17,000 to $24,000. But we are not done. Jennifer Imazeki, part of the Getting Down to Facts project, reminds us: “Despite recent improvements in K-12 funding, California spends less than many states with similarly high costs of living and, as a result, our schools have fewer resources than schools in other states, particularly the number of adults per student.”
E4E-Los Angeles believes a permanent shift to resource equity in LAUSD will require:
- Shifting an increasing percentage of the public dollars spent on education in LA to distribution via funding formula.
- Leveraging federal recovery dollars quickly to support the investments we know to reap the biggest benefits for students, including large-scale investments in talent (teaching and leadership), curriculum (design, planning, rigor, culturally relevant and antiracist pedagogy, implementation, coaching, and continuous improvement), and comprehensive social and emotional supports, including the hiring of additional, critical non-teaching staff at all schools – e.g., social workers, counselors, and nurses.
- Applying ongoing pressure to local, state, and federal decision-makers to maintain and increase LAUSD’s per-pupil funding, rather than sinking back to paltry pre-pandemic levels.
After ten years of working in Los Angeles, E4E analyzed our data from thousands of conversations, listening sessions, dozens of surveys, and our representative poll of LAUSD teachers to determine what issues have been most consistently raised as priorities for educators over the last decade. To do this, we coded all conversation notes, polls, and survey data across all content areas and then grouped them into meta categories. This data analysis included 3,500 data points from LAUSD teachers.
Through this data analysis we found that the meta category of equitable funding was the number one most common issue area raised by educators in the last decade and was even more prevalent in the last three years, repeatedly landing in the top three issues areas raised by E4E-Los Angeles members.
– The Education Trust’s State of Funding Equity Data Tool lets you easily see funding data and disparities by state.
– A primer on funding formulas from Bellwether Education Partners.
– A recent Research study looking at funding formulas in California’s and their differentiated impacts on student achievement..
– LAUSD website for SENI-related information.
– Education Law Center tracks information regarding K-12 student funding across the country.
– WeBudgetLA is an online tool/calculator that helps explain education budgeting.