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EDITORIAL: Education Funding Regulations Need A Bit More Work

San Jose Mercury News

The California Board of Education on Thursday will adopt regulations implementing the state's new education funding law, and the proposal before them is a significant improvement over early drafts. The plan needs one more change to ensure the law can live up to Gov. Jerry Brown's dual promise of increased flexibility for schools and additional resources for disadvantaged students.

Under the new Local Control Funding Formula, passed last year, the state provides a base grant for each child. On top of that, districts get a supplemental grant for each disadvantaged student -- English-language learners, kids in poverty and foster children -- to pay for extra services such as counselors and language specialists. Districts with high numbers of disadvantaged kids will get an additional grant.

The law requires the funds to go directly to the education of the students who generate them, not be spread widely. "Equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice," Brown said as he stumped for the law's passage.

The original regulations, released last fall, gave too much leeway to districts in an attempt to fulfill Brown's pledge to give schools more control over their budgets. The latest draft of the temporary regulations fixes most of those problems and has pleased the hordes of parents and advocacy groups who protested.

One issue remains: The regulations don't require districts with high concentrations of disadvantaged students -- more than 55 percent -- to demonstrate how they'll use the funds they receive for those students to benefit them. They also don't require districts to show that the way the funds are used is effective. Districts with lower concentrations of high-needs students must accomplish both goals.

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For districts with extremely high percentages of these students -- say, 75 percent or more -- this is not a problem. With so many disadvantaged kids, money spent in just about any way will most likely benefit them.

But it is problematic in districts with populations of high-needs students between 55 percent and about 75 percent -- including, at last count, Santa Clara Unified (Santa Clara County), Jefferson Elementary (San Mateo County) and Antioch Unified (Contra Costa County). Districts like these would be free to spend on something like an across-the-board salary increase, rather than on targeted services.

A coalition of 30 parent and community groups is recommending one small change to the regulations: They should require districts' spending plans to show the money is "principally directed toward serving (disadvantaged) pupils and effective in meeting the districts goals for (these) pupils in the state priority areas."

The board should make this reasonable adjustment. And then Californians should start paying close attention to how their districts operate under this new law, to ensure its promise is fulfilled. ___

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