Audit Questions Billions in State Funds Meant for Foster Youth, Other Vulnerable Students

California State Auditor Elaine Howle. Photo: Sacramento Bee

In 2013, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and the state legislature established a major program meant to close the achievement gap for disadvantaged students. The increased funding from it is supposed to go to help schools better serve vulnerable groups: students from low-income families, English language learners and foster youth.

But an audit released this month found what many youth advocates have long suspected – there is no evidence the program is having an impact, or if schools are even correctly spending the billions of dollars they receive through it.

The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) has routed billions each year to California’s 977 school districts. In her recent report filed to Governor Gavin Newsom (D) and the state legislature, State Auditor Elaine Howle said she found very little improvement in the achievement gap since 2013.

Part of the problem is state law places oversight of spending on districts, an approach that doesn’t always ensure that these funds benefit the intended student groups, Howle noted.

“Specifically, state law does not explicitly require districts to use unspent supplemental and concentration funds in the following year to benefit intended student groups, nor does it require that they track their spending of these funds,” Howle wrote. “Without a means of tracking how districts use supplemental and concentration funds, state and local policymakers and other local stakeholders lack adequate information to assess the impact of those funds on the outcomes of intended student groups.”

One concern highlighted by Howle is the fact that some school districts seem to be rolling unspent LCCF funds over to the next fiscal year, and then redesignating it for general spending, meaning it can be used however the district sees fit. The auditor recommended a legislative change to LCCF requiring that the funds maintain their focus on the intended vulnerable groups.

In response to the audit, a letter by the California Board of Education said that there will be a revised template for tracking what is funded through the program.

“The new template will consolidate, in one place, expenditures associated with all actions within the LCAP, broken down by source of fund,” the board’s letter said.

The audit gives teeth to lawsuits and complaints by youth and education advocates who for years have attempted to see if LCFF money has reached those in need, said Samantha Tran, senior managing director for education at Children Now.

“It re-enforces what we’ve been advocating for several years,” Tran said. Children Now supported a bill two years ago that would have required the state to publish the amount of federal, state and local money given to each of California’s public schools. The bill passed the state Assembly but failed to move forward and there was little change under then-Gov. Jerry Brown.

Tran and others said the audit may place the issue of transparency in a new spotlight.

“The audit is important because it provides evidence on top of what social justice groups have been presenting,” added Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California-Berkeley.

Fuller has been researching the law’s effectiveness. In a report released last year, he found that within the Los Angeles Unified School District, the funds made their way to high schools hosting more disadvantaged students. But when it came to funding elementary schools, “we continue to see little progressivity in how LAUSD distributes dollars among elementary schools.

“(The audit) provides evidence on top of our data from Los Angeles Unified School District,” Fuller said. “We now have a state agency substantiate the work we have shown.”

Moving forward, Fuller and Tran said they believed Newsom is likely to be in favor of transparency and adjusting state standards for schools report on the funding.

“Moving forward, transparency is huge,” Fullers said. However, he added: “It’s not going to take transparency alone.”

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