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LAUSD Is Putting More Money Into Its ‘Equity Index.' Here's What That Means

A young child wearing a mask colors with crayons at a desk
A first grader at Harding Street Elementary School in L.A. works at his desk -- spaced six feet away from his classmate -- on April 13, 2021, the first day the campus was open since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Kyle Stokes
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For years, it’s been a refrain of advocacy organizations: the Los Angeles Unified School District doesn’t do enough to ensure scarce resources reach the highest-need students.

In 2018, at these advocates’ urging, L.A. Unified school board members got involved. They voted to re-write the district’s funding formula to redirect some of the LAUSD’s state funding into the district’s poorest and most challenged schools.

Three years and one pandemic later, those advocacy groups have put their thumb on the funding scale again — and claimed another victory.

LAUSD board members voted on Tuesday to double the amount of money the district redistributes through its school funding formula — the Student Equity Needs Index, or “SENI” — to at least $700 million in the coming year.

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At a time when issues of racial justice have been front and center in LAUSD politics, the board’s vote will likely free up more funds to spend on campuses serving larger populations of Black students, English learners, and students from the district’s poorest neighborhoods.

“This is a small amount — but significant,” said board member Mónica García, who co-sponsored the proposal. (LAUSD’s annual budget totals to around $9 billion.)

“For months, our neighborhoods have been at the epicenter of the global pandemic,” said Maria Brenes, executive director of the East L.A.-based group Inner City Struggle. “We must have greater investment and support for the communities hardest hit by this pandemic. We cannot allow for the achievement gaps that harm Black and Brown students to deepen.”

File: Los Angeles Unified School Board member Mónica García listens to fellow board member George McKenna speak during a meeting on Tues., Aug. 22, 2017.
(Kyle Stokes

Was The Vote Rushed?

The vote also comes as LAUSD enters a period of unprecedented, if temporary, prosperity; the district expects some $5 billion in state and federal aid for COVID-19 recovery efforts. Initially, García and fellow board member Tanya Ortiz Franklin proposed distributing those dollars to schools through the SENI index as well.

But García and Ortiz Franklin also rushed their proposal to a vote on Tuesday — and other board members balked at linking the entire pot of relief money to the SENI formula with so little advance warning.

Because of last-minute amendments, LAUSD officials also couldn’t provide a more detailed picture of how the change will affect all 800-plus schools’ bottom lines — though they did say no school would receive less money through the equity formula than it did last year.

The board’s decision has huge impacts for LAUSD’s local school principals, who often face wrenching decisions about how to spend limited dollars. (Do I hire an assistant principal or a counselor? A reading specialist or additional teacher training time?) Because SENI dollars are discretionary, principals at especially high-need schools will have more freedom — and responsibility — to spend the money as they choose.

“I think this is a win for everyone,” Ortiz Franklin said. “It is important to say every school gets more money from SENI. It’s flexible dollars school sites have been asking us for.”

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The Backstory Behind 'SENI'

California’s K-12 funding formula already directs more state funding to schools that serve greater numbers of low-income students, English learners and foster youth.

But in LAUSD, more than 80 percent of students fit that description — which, advocacy organizations have claimed, made it too easy for the district to spend on sweeping programs without ensuring they did much good for the highest-need students.

“Without the proper funding” for education, said Ryan Smith of the Partnership for L.A. Schools during Tuesday’s meeting, “[Black and Brown communities] have no economic basis to build from, and we are once again asked to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps with boots we do not own.”

Pressure from those advocacy groups — including the Partnership, Inner City Struggle, Community Coalition of South L.A., the Advancement Project, and others — led to a rewrite of the district’s first Student Equity Needs Index in 2018.

The re-written index was meant to more meaningfully differentiate the needy schools from the neediest schools by leaning on some unorthodox metrics. Along with test scores and other academic metrics, the re-written SENI considers asthma rates, gunshot injuries and reports of on-campus fights as it ranks schools’ levels of need.

Initially, the board directed just $25 million through this formula. This year, LAUSD redistributed $283 million to schools using the formula. Before the board’s vote Tuesday, district officials had planned to divvy up around $354 million in the coming year through SENI.

FILE - Jackie Goldberg, a candidate for L.A. Unified School Board, speaks with a volunteer at her campaign's Silver Lake headquarters on Tues., May 14, 2019. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

'Is This The Right Tool This Moment?'

But SENI’s methodology has raised eyebrows. In the past, board president Kelly Gonez has questioned why SENI includes graduation rates and first grade reading scores: if those figures improve, doesn’t that penalize a school in the SENI index?

Other critics have questioned the fairness of diverting resources, arguing that only a handful of schools in LAUSD would be considered “low-need” if they were located in a more affluent community. (In two-thirds of the district’s schools, more than 50% of students qualify as low-income.)

On Tuesday, board member Jackie Goldberg worried that the ranking was penalizing schools that actually deserve additional funding.

“Equity funding is important. I have supported it literally all my life,” Goldberg said. “The issue is SENI.”

Goldberg wondered how SENI could rank Bell High — where more than 92 percent of students qualify as low-income — as a “Moderate-need” school.

“That’s my problem,” Goldberg said. “It isn’t with spending more money … believe me, I have wanted this for 40 years. But is [SENI] the [right] tool this moment? The [proposal] seems to say, ‘We have to hurry, so we have to use [SENI] this year and we’ll fix it for the following year.’ I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

At first, Goldberg objected to the rushed timeline for the measure. She voted to block debate on the proposal until a future meeting, along with board members Scott Schmerelson and George McKenna.

But when it came for a final vote on the measure, only McKenna voted against it.

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