Our new report, The Cruel Divide: How California’s Education Finance System Shortchanges its Poorest School Districts, paints a startling picture of inequity. California’s highest poverty districts receive $620 less per student from state and local sources than the state’s wealthiest districts. For a mid-sized school district of 6,000 students, that amounts to over $3.7 million per year.
Most people know that California school districts have suffered a series of brutal budget cuts over the past five years. What’s less evident to the public is the differential impact of these cuts based on the size and wealth of school districts. Our report illustrates that poor districts get less revenue than wealthy districts. As a result, when their budgets are cut, they have to trim far more services than wealthy districts and their financial health becomes far more precarious.
Adults make these decisions but kids suffer. Our poorest districts cut education support services like counseling and nursing. They cut their school year and eliminate summer school. Children lose arts, music and other enrichment activities. Meanwhile, students on the other side of the tracks, a zip code away, have everything they need to succeed.
For four decades, there have been efforts in the legislature and the courts to fix our finance system. Our report reveals how far those efforts still have to go. Governor Brown has taken a step in the right direction in calling for a streamlined school finance system and a weighted student formula. But for the Governor’s proposal to work, the dollars have to go to the school-level to the students who need them. As we noted in our 2005 Hidden Gaps Report, district-level spending can hide huge gaps in funding between schools. As we reform our state education finance system, we should fix inequities at both levels.
Today, we released Learning Denied: The Case for Equitable Access to Effective Teaching in California’s Largest School District. This report is the result of an 18 month study of teacher, student and layoff data from the second largest school district in the nation – the Los Angeles Unified School District. Using this data, we were able to quantify the impact of effective teachers on student learning. We looked at the extent to which students of color and students in poverty had access to effective teachers, and we also looked at the impact of quality-blind teacher layoffs. We found that low-income students and students of color in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) are less likely to be taught by the district’s top teachers – the very teachers capable of closing the district’s achievement gaps. These inequities are exacerbated by teacher mobility patterns and quality-blind layoffs.
The report reveals that:
- Teachers have the potential to dramatically accelerate the learning of their students – with the average student taught by a teacher in the top 25 percent of the district (top quartile in terms of value-added) gaining half a year more of learning in English-Language Arts and four months in math than a student placed with a teacher in the bottom 25 percent (bottom quartile).
- Second-graders who started off behind academically and then had three top-quartile teachers accelerated to academic proficiency, while students with consecutive bottom-quartile teachers remained stuck below grade level.
- Commonly used measures of teacher quality, such as years of experience, are poor predictors of effectiveness in the classroom. While teachers do improve over time, the differences among teachers are far greater than those between teachers at different levels of seniority. For example, the difference between a 10th-year teacher and first-year teacher is only about three and a half weeks in ELA and two and a half weeks in math.
- Effective teachers are inequitably distributed in LAUSD with Latino, African-American and low-income students much less likely to have access to top-quartile teachers. In addition, these top teachers are more likely to leave the district’s highest need schools.
- Quality-blind teacher layoffs in 2009 resulted in the removal of high value-added teachers from the highest need schools. If the district had instead laid off teachers based on effectiveness, only about 5 percent of the ELA teachers and 3 percent of the math teachers actually cut by LAUSD would have been laid off.
We hope that state and local policymakers will focus on these findings and follow through on our recommendations. This work arrives one week after two important reports – the results of the MET project from the Gates Foundation and the results of a study by researchers at Harvard and Columbia highlighted in the New York Times revealing the long-term benefits effective teachers for students. These two reports and our study all highlight the massive learning gains for students who have access to effective teaching. Our report looks at issues of access to effective teaching by race and poverty, finding broad inequities in the nation’s second largest school district and analyzes the negative impacts of a seniority based layoff process forced on the district by the state. All of this work leads to one indelible conclusion – it is time for change. We must place our most effective teachers with our highest need students and work to do whatever is necessary to keep them there.
Back when I was working in schools in New England, we had snow days. In California, our kids have “budget cut days.” Unlike the snow days, there’s no surprise or joy to them and they never get made up. Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever. For those kids who need them the most, like the hundreds of thousands of students in our state who are learning English, the learning time is irretrievably lost.
This November, California voters are going to be asked to vote for ballot initiatives to tax themselves and the rich to raise more money for education. In the coming months, the proponents of these initiatives will serenade us with stories of cuts to the school year, increasing class sizes, and disappearing education services while our state’s wealthiest citizens live high on the hog. I can see the commercials already – a sad child staring out of the screen, begging voters, “Please sir. Tax the rich so I can have a future.” Based on recent polls, Californians are poised to respond to these messages and pass the initiatives.
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It’s become pretty commonplace to bash the federal government’s role in education. Barely a day goes by without someone taking a jab at the Feds, attacking federal education policy and calling for more local control. When I hear those attacks, I remember Lynn.
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Today, The Education Trust—West and its partners, Alliance for a Better Community, California Latino School Boards Association, Communities for Teaching Excellence, Education Pioneers, Families In Schools, Full Circle Fund, L.A. Small Schools Center, L.A.’s Promise, National Council of La Raza, Para Los Niños, Parents for Unity, and Youth Policy Institute released Turning Back the Clock: The Inequitable Impact of Shortening California’s School Year.
The policy brief highlights research findings that confirm the critical importance of increased classroom time for improved student achievement, particularly for students in poverty. In fact, the brief identifies a number of schools in California that have extended the school year or school day and have seen improved student learning.
As the brief explains, over the past several years, California’s policymakers have made the inequitable decision to systematically reduce the amount of instructional time that our school districts are required to provide.
For example, under AB 114 signed into law by Governor Brown earlier this year, school districts are allowed to shorten the school year by up to seven additional days if and when state revenues fall short of projections. This could potentially result in California’s districts having the shortest school year in the nation. With the State Controller recently reporting lower state revenues, it appears more and more likely that these mid-year cuts will happen. Once again, our highest need students, including English learners and students from low-income families, will suffer the inequitable impact of state budget cuts.
Given that California has some of the widest achievement gaps and lowest student performance in the nation, reducing learning time in our schools should not be an option.
The clock is ticking. With each hour and with every day, we approach a time when districts around the state will once again consider cutting days off the school year. The time to act is now. If you believe, like we do, that our students deserve both the opportunity and time necessary to achieve their dreams of college and career, write to the governor and your legislator. Call on them to protect the rights of our children and prevent any cuts to California’s school year.
President Obama’s announcement of an application process for waivers of No Child Left Behind provides California with an unprecedented opportunity to improve our education system to better serve all students. Our state’s leaders have been consistently critical of NCLB and asked for relief from its requirements without presenting a real vision for closing California’s persistent achievement gaps. They now have the flexibility to develop a new accountability system focused on cutting our state’s achievement gaps in half. They also have an opportunity to reform our broken teacher evaluation system and guarantee access to college and career ready curriculum for all students. In a state where students of color and low income students represent the majority of our student population, closing opportunity and achievement gaps and implementing critical reforms should be our leaders’ top priorities. California’s future and our students’ hopes and aspirations depend on the willingness of our state leaders to be courageous enough to turn this unprecedented opportunity into a reality.
The data just released on poverty in California is stark and maddening. Nearly a quarter of our state’s children now live below the poverty line. There was a point in time when our nation engaged in a war on poverty. Now, we have a war on just about everything else. When I was a Volunteer in Service to America (VISTA) in Appalachia in my early twenties, I handled the finances as a representative payee of more than a dozen men and women. Their lives were a daily struggle of small but powerful choices over dollars and I would get their calls at all times of the day or night asking for a few dollars for some expense or another. I remember haggling with landlords who wanted to kick them out and calculating the impact of a leaky faucet on monthly cash flow. I remember thinking about the paths they had taken to that point. So many of them had never been given a chance. So many couldn’t read or write. So many had been dependent on others their entire lives. The culture of dependency was as dehumanizing as the experience of poverty itself.
We should give people a helping hand when they need it. But giving people a helping hand is not enough; we also have to give them the means to climb out of poverty. There is no greater equalizer than a quality education. Yet, just at a time when we could be using our education system as that great equalizer, we are systematically defunding it. And in doing so, we are taking away the additional education supports and opportunities that are most likely to lift our children in poverty to greater levels of achievement and financial independence for their families. People love to argue we can’t close achievement gaps because they are rooted in poverty. But the fact is that each child has such enormous potential. If our education system doesn’t give them every opportunity to fulfill that, it just drains away. Other nations have made the decision to invest in their education systems and expand opportunities for their children. Is it any wonder that their economies are booming while ours appears to be in steady decline.