School & District Management Opinion

L.A. Inequity Map Packs Political Punch

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — April 27, 2015 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Map showing areas of highest student need in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The map, developed by the Advancement Project, proved powerful in persuading the school board to reallocate funds.

Okay, this is a semi-morality play. There are good guys, or at least pretty good guys, and they win, at least a little.

The story begins with California’s Local Control Funding Formula, which eliminated scores of targeted categorical funds and replaced them with supplemental funding based on numbers of students in poverty, English learners, and foster youth. The Los Angeles Unified School District quickly realized that it would gain $837-million, and there was no shortage of ideas about how to spend it.

There was a lot of pent-up demand among teachers, who hadn’t seen a raise in eight years. Even before the legislation was signed, the school board pushed the superintendent toward district-wide, teacher friendly expenses: extending the school year, reducing class sizes, restoring staff positions lost during the recession, and increasing teacher pay.

Pent up demand to address recession shortfalls would have sucked up all of the new funds.

But a large coalition of community based organizations wanted the new supplemental and concentration grants to be spent at the schools with the most need. They constructed a student need index, picking 12 variables that indicated the challenges these schools faced. [See listing below.] The index identified 36 high schools, 32 middle schools, and 174 elementary schools with the highest need.

Creating the index, itself, was political. Coalition members needed to decide what to count and how much to weight each variable. The index began as review of research into the achievement dampening challenges that children face. Academic research connected with first-person narratives from students. There was a process of give and take among advocacy groups, all leading to pages of spreadsheet calculations.

However, “numbers on an Excel spreadsheet are not very persuasive,” said Kim Pattillo Brownson, director of educational equity at the Advancement Project. Her organization drew on its geodata expertise to map student need by school. Then the schools were located within school board member districts, resulting in the map at the top of this post. (The Advancement Project had been working with mapped data since the early 2000s. Its Healthy City project maintains a powerful online mapping utility.)

Look carefully at the map. It is almost a textbook example of good data visualization. It took a lot of complex information and reduced it to easy-to-understand symbols: those colored dots with red indicating schools with the highest need scaling to less vibrant colors in schools of less need. The clustering of red and orange dots is immediately obvious.

So, too, are the school board district boundaries. It’s immediately apparent that there is a concentration of high needs schools in districts 1, 2, 5, 6, and 7. An easy political majority, you would think; just move some money from the more affluent areas of the city to the less affluent.

But the political calculus was a little more complicated. Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, the veteran school board member in District 1, had died; her replacement, George McKenna, had not yet been elected. And the remaining board members were divided into warring camps that made their cooperation difficult.

Armed with the map, which visualized the student need index, a coalition of more than 50 community organizations held rallies and met one-on-one with school board members. Under the banner of Communities for Los Angeles Student Success, the coalition initially demanded that 80 percent of the local control budget supplemental and concentration funds be spent through the need index formula. (A case study from Education Trust West documents the process.)

United Teachers Los Angeles came aboard even though some of its members’ schools would not be advantaged by the deal. President Alex Caputo-Pearl rallied support at the board meeting where the index was presented and approved.

The map and advocacy, created a convergence of self-interest and civic good, and gave a majority of school board members a reason to support financial redistribution toward the most needy students and schools. “It didn’t take a great deal of arm twisting,” Brownson said. The motion to allocate $154-million according to the index passed with five votes.

The fifth supporting vote came from Steven Zimmer, whose District 4 contained none of the highest need schools. He just saw it as the right thing to do and became a co-sponsor of the resolution.

The moral of this story is that good data maps and graphics can help gather the political will. Getting data to speak to people who are not number crunchers will become increasingly important as California moves more deeply into local control funding and accountability. It will be how politics is done right.


Exploring GeoMapping

Esri, headquartered in Redlands, is the world leader in geographic information systems software. Its normally expensive tools are freely available to schools, and it will be offering a free online course starting in May along with an educator conference in San Diego in July.

Elements of Need Index Used In LAUSD

  1. Percent of 8th grade students scored basic, below basic, or far below basic in CST ELA exam.
  2. Percent of 3rd grade students scored basic, below basic, or far below basic in CST ELA exam.
  3. Number of high school dropouts.
  4. Number of children without licensed childcare seats per 10,000 children.
  5. Number of English Learner students.
  6. Unduplicated number of students qualified for foster care.
  7. Number of enrolled students.
  8. Number of nonfatal gun injuries per 10,000 persons.
  9. Number of nonprofit organizations related to youth crime prevention per 10,000 persons.
  10. Number of suspensions and expulsions.
  11. Asthma hospitalization rate per 10,000 children under 18.
  12. Percentage of students who are in Health Fitness Zone in two or less categories.

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.