In summary

California lags other states in closing the achievement gap for disadvantaged students. A new 10-year report suggests a major state investment in preschool.

Sweeping reforms to the way California funds its public schools appear to be lifting student achievement, but this state may need to do and spend much more, particularly on early childhood education, if Californians hope to keep up with the rest of the country in closing its “achievement gap.”

That’s the takeaway from an extensive research effort unveiled this week, the latest dispatch in a 10-year-old collective policy effort by California education scholars.

Researchers behind Getting Down To Facts II, a compilation of 36 studies and 19 briefs by more than 100 authors, concluded that the verdict is still out on the state’s Local Control Funding Formula, the school funding mechanism touted by Gov. Jerry Brown as a landmark education reform when he signed it into law in 2013. The formula channels extra state dollars to schools with the greatest concentration of needy students.

But, researchers found, there are promising signs of its impact. That includes a correlation between those concentrated spending boosts and “significant increases in high school graduation rates and academic achievement, particularly among poor and minority students.”

Spending $1,000 more per student in grades 10-12 boosts high school graduation rates by 5.9 percentage points, the researchers concluded, and they found a similar correlation between spending and upticks in average reading and math test scores for low-income students in 11th grade.

So targeting state money seems to make a difference for disadvantaged students. But while California kids may be improving across the board, the report found, California lags most other states in closing the longstanding achievement gap between Asian and white students and black and Latino students.

Though California students may be learning at the same rate as their peers elsewhere, they aren’t catching up because so many are handicapped by a lack of preparation even for kindergarten, the researchers concluded.

“California’s lag in academic achievement,” writes the research group led by Stanford education professor Sean F. Reardon, “arises before children even enter the schoolhouse door.”

The findings underscore the state’s longstanding debate over investment in early childhood education and universal preschool, an expensive proposition, given that K-12 spending is already the state budget’s dominant line item.

One group of researchers calculated that California would have to increase K-12 funding by about a third for all of the state’s 6.2 million students to meet the state standards—an estimated $22 billion. As a point of reference, that’s about $2 billion more than the twin Delta tunnels’ estimated price tag.

The Local Control Funding Formula overhauled the state’s system for funding district and charter schools by giving more money to schools that have larger populations of foster youth, English language learners and kids from low-income households. The mechanism removed the “categorical” buckets of funding that limited how schools could spend their dollars in place of more flexibility.

School superintendents largely favor the new funding system, according to a research survey. But Susanna Loeb, the principal investigator for Getting Down To Facts II, said “some districts struggle with how to allocate resources effectively given their flexibility, and a large group of districts do not have access and necessary supports to build the knowledge and skills that they need to use resources effectively.”

Education leaders and policymakers have said it will likely take years to meaningfully conclude whether the new policy is working as intended. But educators and advocates have celebrated the new funding system because it helped renew focus—and steer money—toward addressing persistent gaps in achievement between disadvantaged students and the rest of their peers.

Meanwhile, civil rights advocates and some state legislators have raised ongoing concerns that it is difficult to track whether schools are actually spending this money on the students it’s intended to help—part of why policymakers are interested in this week’s follow-up study.

Christopher Edley Jr., president and co-founder of the Opportunity Institute, a Berkeley nonprofit focused on student equity, likened the question of whether Brown’s education reforms will result in more equitable student outcomes to an “experiment” still playing out.

“It’s a hope on the part of the folks in Sacramento and elsewhere that the evolution of responsibility combined with local participation and policy making would result in more equitable outcomes,” Edley said.

“At this stage those hypotheses about evolution and local control or local participation are unproven,” he said. “We don’t yet know whether this experiment will work in terms of improving outcomes (and) narrowing our disparities.”

The Getting Down To Facts II research was led by Stanford University and Policy Analysis for California Education and is intended to drive education policy making discussions at the California Capitol.

Among other top findings:

  • The state has limited data infrastructure that “produces very little information on what makes an excellent education for its own students.”
  • California is among the worst states in the country for student access to health care and mental health services, yet it would take less than $100 per student for those services to be brought up to “a basic level.”
  • Other funding issues regarding pensions, special education and school facilities threaten the success of recent reforms such as the Local Control Funding Formula if left unaddressed.

The massive repository of studies follows up on the landmark 2007 Getting Down To Facts mega-study, and generally strikes a more optimistic tone on the direction of the state’s education system than its predecessor.

The studies conducted more than a decade ago concluded that California’s school finance and governing systems were “fundamentally flawed” at the time.

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Ricardo Cano covers California education for CalMatters. Cano joined CalMatters in September 2018 from The Arizona Republic and, where he spent three years as the education reporter. Cano...