LAUSD’s new funding approach terrifies UTLA
The Los Angeles Unified School District is about to implement a new funding model that has the ability to upend the power dynamic within the district. For the first time, parents and the United Teachers Los Angeles would have equal opportunity to influence decisions related to students’ education.
In a press release issued last week, the UTLA — which bragged publicly about its ability to leverage school closures to extract more concessions from taxpayers — touted its “massive digital ad buy” to compel the LAUSD Board of Education to abandon its plan to embrace Student Centered Funding. The ads include ominous photos of former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and fear-invoking references to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
What is Student Centered Funding?
So, what is it about Student Centered Funding that has the union so up in arms? Simply put, it’s a funding approach that delegates decision-making authority to principals, rather than centralizing them at the district level. Currently, LAUSD allocates resources to schools, sending them each a certain number of teachers, support staff, materials, and other resources. Under the forthcoming Student Centered Funding approach, the district would allocate money to schools, and the principal would be empowered to make staffing and programmatic decisions to meet the unique needs of their students.
The district would dole out funds based on how many students an individual school serves, and the per-pupil amount would vary by student, based on the district’s current Student Equity Needs Index. This funding index provides more money for students that meet certain criteria, including those belonging to select ethnic groups, those identifying as LGBTQIA+, children experiencing homelessness or economic hardship, English Language Learners, students with learning challenges, etc. If a student moves schools within LAUSD, the funding would follow them to their new site, ensuring the new school has resources to respond to that student’s needs.
Shifting decisions to the local level
Serving over 600,000 students at more than 1,000 schools, this new strategy holds far more promise that students will actually succeed. The current, one-size-fits-all approach is an antiquated one that can’t possibly respond to the diversity within LAUSD’s student population, particularly during an ongoing pandemic. Currently, only half of the district’s students are proficient in English, and only 40 percent are meeting math standards. Something must change.
By empowering principals to make school-level decisions — and by providing the funding for them to do so — LAUSD can better serve the needs of all students. A principal in a school with a high level of English Language Learners may choose to hire more English tutors or support staff, for example. Because the funding model introduces competition, principals may also provide classes and services that are attractive to parents in their neighborhoods.
Importantly, Student Centered Funding empowers parents to actually influence the decisions that affect their children. Under the current funding model, parents must lobby the board of education- a tall feat considering the seven-member board is tasked with serving half a million students and their parents. A principal, however, not only has more bandwidth to understand a parent’s concerns, but likely knows the child and specifics of a situation. And, if a school is unable to meet a child’s needs, the parent may move that student and the funding that is attached to them to another school, further ensuring parents are able to protect their child’s education.
The impact of Student Centered Funding
Currently, a handful of school districts across the country — including Oakland, San Francisco, New York City, Boston, Denver, Houston, and Chicago — have implemented some version of this funding approach. According to the LAUSD, evidence suggests Student Centered Funding leads to higher test scores in English and math. Indeed, a research study looking at the impact of an early version of this funding model in Oakland and San Francisco identified that funding schools this way increased transparency, encouraged innovation, reduced inequity, and is a crucial step to improving student outcomes.
Is it really a Betsy DeVos program?
If one were to believe the United Teachers Los Angeles, they’d mistakenly think Student Centered Funding was a right-wing, backdoor attempt to destroy public schools created by former President Donald Trump and former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. In fact, the program LAUSD plans to implement was created under former President Barack Obama’s leadership. Last summer, in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that exacerbated the need for this type of responsive funding, DeVos authorized a small, $3 million incentive for schools to implement the Obama-era program.
Contrary to the union’s fearmongering, it’s likely LAUSD will use this funding approach to advance principles and concepts those on the political right typically oppose. The district’s funding approach clearly acknowledges the existence of institutional racism, and provides more funding to students in select groups to help them overcome this. Schools in low-income areas or those serving high-levels of students within these categories will receive more funding than those in more affluent regions. As noted above, only districts located in more progressive regions of the country have embraced Student Centered Funding; were it a right-wing scheme as teachers unions claim, logic suggests districts in conservative areas would be the ones utilizing this program.
So, what’s UTLA’s beef?
Most of UTLA’s propaganda against Student Centered Funding simply blames Betsy DeVos, avoiding substantive challenges to model. But in one recent video by a union rep, the truth of the union’s fear of this funding model slipped out. “It will silence our communities by putting the entire budget in the hands of the principal.” Stated differently, rather than putting the entire LAUSD budget in the hands of one, seven-member board, it will put it in the hands of 1,000 principals from across LA.
For the United Teachers Los Angeles and other well-funded special interests, the current model allows them to lobby but one body: the LAUSD Board of Education. Convincing seven board members to vote the union’s way is simple — a campaign check here, a get-out-the-vote-effort there. But lobbying 1,000 individual principals is far more difficult, though teachers on-site would maintain strong influence. For parents, the exact opposite is true: influence is easier at the school level.
Student Centered Funding would put parents on equal footing with the UTLA when it comes to impact. Together, parents and teachers would work with principals to make school-level decisions that are in the best interests of students.
The United Teachers Los Angeles opposes Student Centered Funding because this model would severely limit its ability to run the Los Angeles Unified School District. The current funding model prioritizes the needs of adults — dues-paying members of this union — over the needs of students. Student Centered Funding shifts the focus and empowers principals to work together with parents and, yes, local members of UTLA, to create a school that works for children.
The LAUSD plans to implement Student Centered Funding for the 2022-2023 school year. A design proposal will be presented to the Board of Education at the end of September, and parents may engage with their principals on school-level plans in the spring of 2022.
Parents seeking to provide input now may do so at LAUSD’s website.