Building a tool to define ‘adequately-funded’ education

Building a tool to define ‘adequately-funded’ education

(Calif.) California’s second-largest school district is almost ready to answer a question that has prompted legal challenges across the nation: How much money translates to an adequately-funded student education?

San Diego Unified is nearing completion of what it’s calling an Adequacy Calculation Tool – an electronic mechanism that will allow it and others to accurately evaluate the relationship between existing resources and what’s actually needed to prepare students for success in college and career.

“In talking with the Legislature on this issue, the conversations have centered around the question, ‘Well, what do you mean by adequate?’” said Martha Alvarez, director of government relations at SDUSD.

“That got us at San Diego to think more proactively about how we could move the conversation across the state about what our schools need – what would a model school look like that would provide students with the educational setting and opportunity that they need to be successful,” she said.

The district’s efforts to accurately pin-point the true cost of educating students comes as it and others across the state prepare to enter their third year under California’s restructured school finance system – the Local Control Funding Formula. The LCFF was designed to simplify the K-12 funding stream and give districts more say in how they use the money. In exchange they must, using broad community input, develop comprehensive spending plans – called Local Control Accountability Plans – that detail how those expenditures will improve student outcomes.

As part of that process, the district embarked upon an advocacy plan that included the development of the Adequacy Calculation Tool in order to determine “a high-level estimate” of the funds that would be needed to fully implement the goals of the LCAP. The move was also designed to support the larger discussion around funding adequacy in California’s public schools, Alvarez said.

“It is our hope that if enough school districts complete this template, the Legislature will be prompted to host a series of informational hearings to discuss the definition of “adequacy” and the steps California would need to take to develop a long-term investment plans to support our schools,” said Alvarez.

The issue of adequately funding education in America has a long history rooted in desegregation efforts of the 1960s and early ‘70s, when advocates repeatedly and successfully appealed to federal courts to address equitable spending across school districts.

In the ensuing decades, however, student achievement gaps began to reveal that ‘equitable’ doesn’t necessarily equate to ‘adequate’ – the type of education guaranteed all students under many state constitutions. A 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling around the issue of equitable education funding then left plaintiffs with nowhere to turn but their own state courts – and they have, in significant numbers, with varied outcomes.

In just the past few months, courts in Kansas, Texas and Pennsylvania have made key rulings in school funding adequacy lawsuits and, according to several groups who track these types of cases, litigation is pending in eight more states as well, including California. In April, for example, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court dismissed a lawsuit filed by seven school districts and several parents against the state and various agencies challenging the state’s public education funding system as inadequate to satisfy the state constitutional mandate that the “General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”

Late last year, the Washington Supreme Court found the state’s Legislature in contempt for not complying with an earlier court ruling that it fully fund public education and ordered it to present a plan for compliance at the end of this year’s session.

Similarly, in other states where courts have ruled education funding inadequate, legislatures have been slow to enact policies guaranteeing every student an “adequately funded” education – or to even begin to define what that is and how much it would cost.

San Diego hasn’t yet finalized its own calculations using its new tool so the district’s adequacy threshold is as yet unknown. Alvarez said they hope to have that figure by the end of this month, and to be able to release the adequacy tool template for public school use in August.

Other districts from around the state, including from the San Francisco Bay Area, Central Valley and Los Angeles area, have expressed interest in using the San Diego mechanism, she said, and once enough assessments are complete, it will likely be possible to pinpoint a per-student funding gap based on an averages across the board.

Of note is the fact that the calculation model does not currently factor in numerous district-wide costs such as custodial care, facility construction and maintenance, utilities, technology improvements, cafeteria operations or employee healthcare and retirement payments – although the latter and possibly others could be added or referred to as deemed appropriate.

Instead, the Adequacy Calculation Tool being developed by San Diego Unified focuses on the addition of human resources and lowering class sizes as the key indicator for determining adequate funding levels.  

The actual “tool” is a multi-page Microsoft Excel document that provides a side-by-side comparison of “actual” and what would be considered “adequate” instructional and teaching-support costs. The document contains separate pages for each school level – elementary, middle or secondary – taking into account all of the services students require, from basic classroom time for core subjects to robust enrichment programs and supplemental supports such as counselors and nurses.

Key to determining the “adequate” cost figures for those educational services is a team of San Diego instructional leaders, working with finance personnel, who used a combination of research and their own classroom experience to come up with estimates based on ideal learning conditions.

“We’re not making up the numbers,” said Alvarez. “It’s being well-thought out, and we also don’t want to be too idealistic or too aspirational to where we can never meet that goal. We want to be as accurate as possible.”

The tougher part of the process once the actual “funding gap” is identified, Alvarez said, is going to be finding the resources to bridge that divide on an ongoing basis.

With money pouring in to schools on the heels of 2012’s Proposition 30 tax increase, she said, there’s a misperception that districts now have the resources they need to do all the things being asked of them.

“There’s a sense that Prop. 30 solved all school budget woes when, in fact, it only stopped the bleeding,” said Alvarez. “Even if Prop. 30 was extended, that’s not going to give us more money – that’s going to keep us where we are now, and we are appreciative of that but we need to go further.”

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