As the recently released report “The Invisible Achievement Gap” outlines, foster students require more funding and services than the typical student, and getting them this attention requires a new degree of communication and transparency in what has heretofore been a closed-book system.
With the 2013 creation of the Local Control Funding Formula, California has gone from having one of the nation’s most complicated educational budget processes to having one of the simplest. The LCFF allots extra funds to school districts based on their populations of low-income students, English-learners and foster youth. A recent article in The Chronicle of Social Change explains the dynamics of exactly how this has happened, highlighting its impact on the ground by focusing on the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Notably, this marks the first statewide acknowledgement of the fact that foster students have needs that differ from those of the typical public school student; the LCFF supplemental grants present an opportunity to give those needs specialized attention and visibility. However, the subsequent roll-out of the policy has highlighted some key complications when it comes to transparency in the education system, both of fund use and of student identity.
Jonathan Kaplan, senior policy analyst at the California Budget and Policy Center, explained that this navigation is a delicate task: “There exists a legitimate tension between those that want school districts to have more flexibility and authority, and those trying to extract more transparency. Striking a happy balance is the new challenge.”
Collecting Statewide Data
School districts receive LCFF supplemental funds based on the number of students designated in one of the three at-risk categories: low-income, English-learner, or foster care.
This inevitably requires school districts to keep track of how many students are in foster care, which in practical terms has proved a huge organizational hurdle. One tenet of the LCFF is that schools and school districts are now required to report to the state which of their students are foster youth on a week-by-week basis. The state is using this data collection to track the educational achievement and movement of the state’s foster student population.
The system tasked with this collection process is the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS), which assigns a Statewide Student Identifier to track each student.
“The LCFF helps draw attention to the needs of foster youth because of the need of districts to track them down in order to receive a supplemental grant for these students,” said CALPADS representative Tina Jung in an email statement to The Chronicle.
However, despite federal and state legislation aimed at stabilizing their educational experience, many California foster youth are often in a state of flux, switching schools sometimes more than three times a year.
This “constantly changing status,” said Jung, has made establishing regular foster youth counts “elusive.”
The Stuart Foundation’s “The Invisible Achievement Gap” report argues that this pinballing of foster youth from place to place creates a gap between them and even their demographically similar peers, citing a direct relationship between lack of stability and low educational outcomes.
Educational consultant Julia Koppich, who co-authored an SRI International report on the subject, attributes some of this achievement gap to a lack of communication. California used to have a policy regarding the confidentiality of learning disability information, she said, which essentially prevented teachers from knowing which students might need additional help.
“This is an analogous situation; being a part of the foster system can impact a student’s ability to succeed academically,” Koppich said. “If teachers do not know who these students are, they cannot adjust their teaching practice in order to help them.”
Tracing the Funds
Of course, simply acquiring the data on foster students marks a significant shift in the way the education system treats its responsibility for the special funding of these at-risk populations. However, some feel that the LCFF’s accountability mechanism is insufficient, allowing local planners to distribute funds, while leaving them unchecked at the state level.
School districts are simply required to submit a Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) to the state, accounting for their supplemental grant use in an unspecified way. The funds are not required to go directly to the support of low-income, English-learning, or foster students, but usually go rather to more general student support.
Kaplan says that this system involves a balance of flexibility and transparency for the school districts; too much transparency restricts their ability to try new initiatives with bureaucratic hurdles and oversight, while too much flexibility does not allow for the kind of statewide coordinated support that the LCFF seeks.
“Coordination and comparison are two important goals here,” he said, in a phone interview with The Chronicle. “Lack of transparency compromises state policy-makers ability to really understand this situation; if funding information provided in the LCAP is unclear or inconsistent across districts, this is a potentially a missed opportunities to compare practices and apply best practices state-wide.”
Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley, says that the spirit of the LCFF is to empower educators at the school site by decentralizing funding decisions away from school boards and state legislators.
However, in larger districts and on a statewide level, he said maintaining a coherent plan becomes an impossible task. Coordinating information about funding decisions is a must, particularly while data collection on foster youth remains flawed. The potential for this new data presents advocates and educators with a critical problem; who needs to have access to it, and why?
As California allows LCFF to evolve (and even to form the basis for the policy of other states), policy-makers will have to answer these questions not only for transparency’s sake, but also for the sake of the students living through these major changes.
“Are the politics around these policies going to eventually add up to something good? Are the kids actually going to be touched by this on the ground?” Fuller asks. Only time will tell.”