LAUSD leaders say public education is woefully underfunded

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By Sarah Favot
LA School Report 

The city’s education community sent a clear message Tuesday from downtown Los Angeles to legislators in Sacramento: the governor’s funding formula has not “fixed” the state’s woefully underfunded public education system. 

The LA Unified school board unanimously approved a resolution to spend resources to advocate in Sacramento to double education funding by 2020 to $20,000 in per-pupil revenue for students in public schools. Numerous organizations expressed their support for the board’s action. 

“You took a bold step already in approving a resolution that will, in fact, help us to change the narrative,” said Jeff Dunn, the district’s new director of government relations. 

“To the uninformed legislator that is not really in the education policy space, they see the fact that we changed the funding formula … (and might say) ‘What is the problem? We’ve fixed education.’ We know that, of course, is not the case. The figures are real. It’s not hocus pocus,” Dunn said. 

The resolution was authored by school board member Kelly Gonez. It initially also called for funding to increase to $25,000 by 2022, but it was amended during Tuesday’s meeting to remove that part of the language. 

“In working with our co-sponsors, we wanted to recognize that there are barriers to raising per-pupil funding, but despite these challenges, Sacramento must commit to dramatically increasing funding so that our schools get the investment they deserve,” Gonez’s chief of staff, Megan Vandenbos, said in an email. 

Gonez was joined by her board colleagues George McKenna and Nick Melvoin as co-sponsors. 

The resolution cites an EdWeek analysis of National Center for Education Statistics data that ranks California at 46th in the nation when it comes to per-pupil spending. When the district’s chief financial officer, Scott Price, was asked about this number, he acknowledged that ranking was based on 2014 data. Another ranking from the California Budget & Policy Center using 2015-16 data puts California at 41st in the nation in per-pupil spending when factoring in cost-of-living in each state. 

“We are still far below the national average, and the crisis in funding schools is mitigated by people saying it’s not as bad,” school board President Mónica García said. 

“It is appalling that a state as wealthy and as rich as California lies at 46th in the nation,” Dunn said. New York state spent about $18,191 in per-pupil spending in 2014. Dunn noted one difference between California and New York. New York does not have Prop. 13, which limits increases in property tax assessments in California. 

Price gave a presentation that summarized the revenue challenges that LA Unified faces. 

There is a misconception that the Local Control Funding Formula, authored by Gov. Jerry Brown and enacted in 2013, “fixed” the budget challenges experienced during the recession, district officials said. LCFF gives more funds to districts that have higher numbers of students who are low-income, English learners, homeless, and foster youth and gives districts more flexibility in spending. 

During the recession, the state borrowed money from K-12 education to pay for other state budgetary needs as the economy was spiraling, officials said. Price said the state has repaid the K-12 funding it borrowed during the recession and education revenue is now at pre-recession levels. However, a decade later, health-care costs continue to rise and the district has had to contribute more toward employee pensions in order to reduce the unfunded liability owed to retirees. 

“It’s really eye-opening that our (increases in) STRS and PERS (contributions) alone almost equal our LCFF revenue,” Gonez said. CalSTRS is the state’s teacher retirement system, and CalPERS is the state’s public employee retirement system. 

Districts receive money based on “average daily attendance,” which is based on enrollment. LA Unified’s enrollment has declined steadily since 2002-03. The district loses about 13,000 to 14,000 students a year. 

“We are in severe declining enrollment,” Price said. 

Although the state has increased its per-pupil allocation year-to-year, enrollment has decreased in LA Unified so rapidly and has been accompanied by increased costs, that the increase has not benefited the district as much as some people may think, Price said. 

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