OPINION: We need targeted funding for racial equity in our public schools. California may have some lessons for all of us

House Republicans recently returned to one of their favorite targets for spending cuts: the country’s most vulnerable youth and the schools that serve them. Their plan would represent a major setback to efforts to achieve racial equity in our nation’s public schools.

During the latest battle over preventing a government shutdown, Republicans called for cutting Title 1 education grants earmarked for low-income students by 80 percent, which would mean a loss of nearly $15 billion in funding for schools with sizeable populations of these students, disproportionately affecting schools that serve more children of color.

We already see this racial logic playing out in the efforts of red states to use school funding as a political football. In Tennessee, the house speaker and lieutenant governor have teamed up to explore rejecting federal education funds altogether. They hope to shirk federal oversight on matters related to inequality, including civil rights protections based on race.

Given the patterns in funding schemes across the country, it is clear that we need to set aside targeted school funding on both the state and local levels with the express purpose of remedying injustices inflicted upon particular groups of students.

Yet the reality is that government funding decisions about education have long been a way to install and preserve racial inequality in our society. And since these inequalities have origins in funding malpractice, to remedy them, the government must use targeted funding for racial equity going forward.

Related: ‘Kids who have less, need more’: The fight over school funding

School funding stems from three major sources: federal, state and local. Looking at average breakdowns from recent data, we see that U.S. schools receive about 47 percent of their funds from their state government, 45 percent from local and 8 percent from federal.

This means that states and districts can counteract any proposed federal cuts with concerted efforts to reinvest in vulnerable youth. But even states with Democratic leadership have struggled to do so.

For example, in Pennsylvania, where I call home, the state’s funding scheme has been found unconstitutional for providing inadequate and unequal funding. Recent investigations have revealed how damaging the effects of this system have been on districts where a majority of students are students of color; one study, from the advocacy group The Education Trust, found that “districts with the most students of color on average receive substantially less (16 percent) state and local revenue than districts with the fewest students of color, equating to approximately $13.5 million for a 5,000-student district.”

Related: OPINION: Pennsylvania’s school funding is a case study in the future of inequality

The state of California, and its largest city, Los Angeles, however, have initiated thoughtful and large-scale efforts to right the wrongs of governments past. California’s funding formula and Los Angeles’ program to holistically support Black students are both concrete efforts to tinker with school funding to move towardequity, rather than away from it. In a nutshell, these programs exemplify meaningful, targeted investments in marginalized populations and represent a significant course reversal from much of United States history.

Though these two programs in California have flaws, which I detail below, there are real lessons that leaders across the country can glean from them in order to make real, lasting change in their own locales.

I spent the previous five years in California training teachers and studying school improvement. This year, we are arriving at the 10th anniversary of the state’s Local Control Funding Formula, which changed how schools were funded and allows for greater flexibility in how local education agencies meet the needs of three targeted student populations: low-income, foster youth and English learners.

These programs exemplify meaningful, targeted investments in marginalized populations and represent a significant course reversal from much of United States history.

Results so far include a demonstrable gain in test scores for these “high-need” students, including a 13 percentage point increase in the number of students meeting or exceeding standards on state tests in districts where 95 percent of students are high-need.

These numbers could have been even higher, however, had there been greater compliance at the district level. The same report noted that roughly 60 percent of districts reported spending “less money on high-need students than they were allocated for these students. Nearly 20 percent spent about half or less.”

Further, advocates argue that California’s funding formula does not do enough to target the needs of Black students in the state, who continue to face an accumulation of disadvantages both in and out of school. This was one impetus for even more targeted funding in California’s largest district: Los Angeles Unified.

In February 2021, Los Angeles approved a reform initiative known as the Black Student Achievement Plan. This plan set out to address rampant racial disparities in the district, pulling together $36.5 million in funds from the school police department budget and the district’s general fund.

The money went toward many important endeavors, including reforms of school discipline and curriculums and hiring support staff such as counselors, school climate coaches and nurses.

Additional resources were provided according to need, with schools serving the highest number of Black students also receiving psychiatric social workers, attendance counselors and funding for restorative justice programs.

Early data found some notable gains, including increases in graduation rates, completion of courses required for admission to California State universities, enrollment in Advanced Placement courses and attendance. These successes, while modest, provide evidence that targeted funding for Black students can improve how schools serve them.

But the problems with LA’s program are also instructive. An April report found that, similar to the deployment of the state funding formula, nearly 40 percent of the allocated funds were not used after the first year of the program, while the rollout and follow-through varied greatly across school campuses.

Those findings were later corroborated by an ongoing evaluation study, which noted that several LA schools dealt with unfilled positions related to the Black Student Achievement Plan while others tended to overwhelm program staff with responsibilities beyond their job descriptions.

These struggles show how, to fulfill their promise, programs like California’s targeted funding formula and Los Angeles’ plan for Black students must: (1) hire appropriate numbers of staff with clear job responsibilities, (2) communicate actively with communities about the purpose of the funds, (3) check-in regularly with schools to keep track of the funds they have left to spend and (4) consistently support the educators making use of the funds.

While there will certainly be differences in state policies, school district size and budgets, more states and districts should heed the lessons, both good and bad, from California.

Given how much pressure we collectively put on schools to improve society, setting aside specific funds for programs to support the most systematically disadvantaged students constitutes an educational imperative. These important California models can pave a path forward with more explicit commitments to racial justice.

 Julio Ángel Alicea is an assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University-Camden. A former public school teacher, his research interests include race, urban education and organizational change.

This story about equitable school funding was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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