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The huge Los Angeles Unified School District is ground zero in California’s perpetual political war over educating millions of children on the short end of the state’s chronic “achievement gap.”

LA Unified, the nation’s second largest school system, has nearly 10% of the state’s 6 million public school students, the vast majority of whom are considered to be “at risk” due to poverty, lack of English language skills or foster child status.

Dan Walters

Opinion

Each year, California taxpayers give LA Unified more than $1 billion in extra financial aid to help those kids increase their academic achievement under the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) that former Gov. Jerry Brown considers one of his finest achievements.

However, Brown always resisted strict accountability for how LA Unified and other local systems spent the extra money, saying he trusted local education officials to do the right thing.

The official guide for spending the extra aid is the Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) that each district must adopt each year. However, education reform advocates have long complained that LCAPs tend to be written in almost undecipherable educational jargon that fails to specify how the money upgrades educations of the targeted kids — with LA Unified depicted as a model of obfuscation.

Reformers scored a win last week when the state Department of Education, which has tended to be an enabler of LA Unified and other recalcitrant systems, declared the district’s 2019-20 LCAP to be seriously deficient.

Failing to Report How School-Level Appropriation Would Be Spent

Public Advocates, a public interest law firm based in San Francisco, and Covington & Burling, a Los Angeles law firm, had challenged the LCAP, saying it was vague in reporting how extra state aid was being spent and what improved outcomes would result.

The Department of Education rejected some allegations, but upheld the most important ones about the lack of specificity, such as bundling $800 million in different types of services into one category, or failing to report how school-level appropriations would be spent.

“At the heart of LCFF is the requirement that (the) district be fully transparent about how they are spending their money so that community stakeholders can provide input into decisions and hold districts accountable for using funding equitably and effectively,” Laura Muschamp, a Covington & Burling attorney, said in statement. “This decision vindicates those values and provides clear guidelines to LAUSD and districts across the state on what spending plan transparency looks like and why it is essential for community accountability.”

The decision’s newly required transparency empowers parents and outside monitors, such as Public Advocates, in their efforts to compel local school systems to be more specific on how they spend tens of billions of dollars each year.

Those Kids Are in Grave Danger of Falling Even Further Behind

It also implies that the state schools superintendent, Tony Thurmond, may be a tougher overseer than predecessor Tom Torlakson, who often sided with districts and powerful school unions. At one point, Torlakson countermanded his own department and declared that LCFF funds could be used for general salary increases.

The LA Unified ruling was issued on the final day of the 2019-20 fiscal year, and there will be no LCAPs issued for 2020-21 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, districts are writing Learning Continuity Plans to spell out how distance learning classes will be conducted, including how at-risk children will be served.

Those kids are in grave danger of falling even further behind during the public health crisis so it’s even more important that LCFF spending be monitored closely. The LA Unified case tells local school systems that they should no longer play word games.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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