Public Press wins an Excellence in Journalism award for ‘Public Schools, Private Money,’ in the winter 2014 edition
Part of a special report on education inequality in San Francisco. A version of this story ran in the winter 2014 print edition.
New state dollars will begin flowing into the San Francisco Unified School District in the fall — and policymakers and activists have already begun arguing over how to spend them.
Should the San Francisco Board of Education use the $22 million from a new funding scheme to increase teacher salaries districtwide? Should it hire more classroom aides? Or should it adjust its decade-old equitable funding policy that gives a leg up to schools with many children from poor families?
The new money — which would grow to $185 million eight years from now if today’s enrollment numbers remain stable — comes from the Local Control Funding Formula, which the state Legislature passed last summer. The plan reroutes more resources to California’s school districts with the most disadvantaged students. The law also gives districts greater freedom to spend funds previously difficult to access due to rigid guidelines.
Civil rights groups and advocates for low-income students say San Francisco’s Board of Education should direct the windfall to programs and support staff for students with the greatest educational challenges. These include language barriers, disabilities or low family incomes.
But Dennis Kelly, president of the United Educators of San Francisco, a union representing 6,000 San Francisco public school teachers and employees, said the money should go to boosting salaries districtwide. He said this would ultimately benefit disadvantaged students through retaining qualified staff and creating better learning experiences.
“By supporting teachers, salaries buy you the services students need to learn,” he said. “This is not just greedy adults with their hands out.”
As chair of the Board of Education’s Budget and Business Services Committee, Jill Wynns will lead the debate about how to spend the money this spring. If the board decides to give teachers widespread raises, little would remain for anything else. But she agreed with Kelly that an across-the-board salary hike would benefit students. “I’m in total agreement with the unions that all employees need to have raises,” Wynns said.
More than half the city’s $667 million public education budget comes from state coffers. The new funds would amount to a 27 percent increase. That would represent a 5 percent bump to what the state invests in San Francisco schools. In essence, it would restore the state contribution to a level of funding not seen since the recession began in 2008 — $7,957 per student — after dipping to a low of $4,945 in fiscal year 2009–2010.
The state money is expected to keep rising for nearly a decade. By 2021, the new state law could funnel a net additional $185 million into the city’s public education system, increasing per-student subsidies to more than $11,000, according to calculations by the California Department of Finance.
Though some details of the new law still need to be ironed out, San Francisco Unified can pursue several strategies to get state dollars. It could spend them on programs targeting low-income students, English-language learners and children in foster care. It might also hire teacher aides specifically for English-language classes. More broadly, the district could develop a plan promising to improve those students’ “educational outcomes” without specifying where the money goes.
This last criterion has alarmed the American Civil Liberties Union and other activists across the state. John Affeldt, managing attorney and director at Public Advocates, a San Francisco-based law firm dedicated to anti-poverty reform, said the law’s spending guidelines were potentially vague enough to allow districts to exclude the students it was written to help.
“Districts can spend some, much or all on non-needy students, which doesn’t meet the statutory requirement,” Affeldt said.
The district had yet to prove that raising teachers’ salaries would be the best thing for these students, even though it could argue that doing so would eventually improve overall student learning, he added.
Regardless of the district’s approach, Wynns said the state’s new guidelines were an improvement on the previous complex and inherently unfair 40-year-old system. Under that formula, California gave an equal base subsidy to all of its nearly 1,000 public school districts, and more based on a complex calculation that includes roughly 50 measures, such as the number of English-language learners and students with special needs.
Wynns said the state formula was so rigid that it led to absurd restrictions on the use of everyday supplies and office equipment. Fifteen years ago, Wynns said, state auditors deemed San Francisco “out of compliance” because someone unaffiliated with a state-funded bilingual program drank from a water cooler dedicated to its exclusive use.
“Imagine how stupid it was to have a water cooler for each program,” Wynns said. “The Local Control Funding Formula lets us recognize that all students need that water.”
For further reading: EdSource Guide to Local Control Funding Formula (January 2014)
Timeline: Local Control Funding Formula Rolls Out in San Francisco (click image to expand)
PUBLIC SCHOOLS, PRIVATE MONEY: Examining Education Inequality in San Francisco
The San Francisco Public Press examined tax records from PTAs and compiled 10 years of budget and academic data from the city’s school district. The research focused only on elementary schools to make easy comparisons. Our research shows that while a small number of schools were able to avoid the worst effects of recent budget cuts, belts continued to tighten at schools with more economically disadvantaged students. Read more online: sfpublicpress.org/publicschools
Other Stories in This Series:
This team project was produced by reporters Jeremy Adam Smith, Emilie Raguso and Justin Slaughter, with research assistance by Jeffrey Thorsby, Jason Winshell, Adriel Taquechel and Shinwha Whang. Tim Redmond, editor of 48hillsonline.org, inspired the project’s focus. We are indebted to EdSource.org for advice on education policy. Thanks to Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton at the U.C. Berkeley Greater Good Science Center for data analysis. This article was made possible by a grant from Rebecca Moyle and Tyler Lange, and donations from hundreds of other Public Press members.
Buy a copy of the newspaper | See also: Five Ways to Encourage Giving to Disadvantaged Public Schools (Greater Good Science Center) | Radio: Jeremy Adam Smith interviewed on KPFA’s “Morning Mix” | KQED News | KQED’s hour-long talk show “Forum” with Dave Iverson
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