Researchers studying California’s new school funding system wish they could track the huge sums of money the state has sent to struggling students, and analyze what districts spent it on.

They can’t because the financial data needed to do so isn’t available.

Given that limitation, they’ve tried to figure out whether the four-year-old Local Control Funding Formula helped expand needy students’ access to key courses and services known to boost their academic achievement.

And two new studies conclude that for many struggling districts the answer is no—at least not yet.

University of California, Berkeley researchers Bruce Fuller and JoonHo Lee examined whether the policy led more needy students to take courses required to attend California’s public universities. If administrators had used some of the new money to open more slots in college-prep courses, the researchers reasoned, participation rates would be higher.

The theory holds true among districts with the fewest disadvantaged students qualifying for extra funds: Their participation rates for college prep classes far exceed the levels recorded in similar districts that just missed qualifying.

But the same progress wasn’t evident in districts with the most disadvantaged students, even though they received the most new funding.

Participation rates are so low among the 15 districts CALmatters studied that most were excluded from the researchers’ analysis as outliers. A mere 20 percent of Compton Unified teens are taking the courses needed to attend a University of California or California State University campus.

Education Trust-West, a nonprofit civil rights group, reached similar conclusions about the new system’s shortcomings. Researchers Theresa Chen and Carrie Hahnel focused on “access gaps” —disparities that low-income schools should have been able to resolve with a big infusion of new formula money.

Instead they discovered that compared to students at other public schools, pupils attending California’s most impoverished schools still have far less access to counselors and nurses.

The gap was most pronounced for psychologists. Needy kids face the most trauma at home and in their communities, yet half as many of them had access to one as their more affluent peers. And somehow this already substantial gap has grown wider since the policy took effect.

Chen and Hahnel also found that disadvantaged students still have less access to calculus, physics and music classes than pupils attending low-poverty schools.

The findings are especially troubling, Hahnel said, given what’s ahead.

As California’s booming economy slows down and districts face rising pension and health care costs, the formula’s ability to drive change will weaken—meaning the state may have already seen the best of what it has to offer disadvantaged kids.

“That’s what has me concerned,” she said. “The results we’ve seen so far aren’t commensurate with the investment we’ve made. Yes, change takes time, but that assumes we’re keeping our foot on the gas. Right now, it looks like we’re about to pull away.”

California school funding series

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