Education Funding

New Data Demands in Calif. Seen as Onerous by Districts

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 01, 2013 7 min read
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To satisfy demands of California’s state K-12 database and a brand-new system for education finance, the state has asked many schools for data on each individual student, including a count of those who qualify as low-income based on their eligibility for federally subsidized meals.

But this fundamental shift in how California handles student information has caused consternation and confusion among many districts serving large populations of needy students. It also highlights the disparities that can emerge between the high-profile components of new laws and the regulations governing those laws.

A stronger focus on student data has arisen in a wide variety of state policies. Colorado, for example, passed a $950 million increase for schools this year (pending voter approval in November) that requires more frequent, accurate counts of school attendance, as well as more transparent information about how the new money is spent.

California’s education department says it is working diligently to respond to districts’ concerns and recognizes the challenge of new data requirements and the impact of the state’s new “local-control funding formula” (LCFF), which was approved by lawmakers in June and is being phased in over seven years. But uncertainty remains about exactly how districts will respond.

“Any time that you’re switching the amounts or types of data that districts have to collect, it’s going to be challenging for them,” said Brennan McMahon, a senior associate at the Washington-based Data Quality Campaign, which advocates for more effective use of K-12 data by states.

More Money, More Info

California first notified districts in May about a new requirement from the state’s longitudinal data system, known as CALPADS, that students be individually identified in the database for various purposes, including their eligibility for free or reduced-price meals, or FARMS, and their disaggregation by subgroups used under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, said Erin Gabel, the government affairs director for the California department.

A group of friends share their meal as more than 1,000 students swarm the school cafeteria for lunch at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School, in Los Angeles. In implementing its K-12 finance overhaul, California is requiring districts to change how they report data on individual students, particularly those eligible for the free and reduced-price lunch program.

The subsequent passage of the new funding formula this year (with the support of Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown) also required districts to direct more individual information on students into CALPADS. Under that formula, in order to help socioeconomically disadvantaged students, districts with high concentrations of “needy” students will receive correspondingly higher amounts of “targeted” funding, up to roughly $3,600 per student by 2020 for districts with large percentages of students eligible for subsidized meals, English-language learners, and students in foster care.

The department issued more guidance in August to help districts understand new reporting requirements, Ms. Gabel said. But the change highlights the gap that exists between what the state wants and what districts had been providing to the federal government. Some schools, she said, hadn’t updated their count of FARMS-eligible students in more than a decade.

“The department has a responsibility to communicate with the field better during this transition,” she said. “It has been a challenging transition at the local level.”

A Knowledge Gap?

But some districts have reacted to the evolving environment with dismay. Their accounts of the new requirements, and what the department says, differ in crucial ways.

For example, Edgar Zazueta, the chief of government affairs for Los Angeles Unified district, where 71 percent of students are FARMS-eligible, said his system was caught completely off-guard when informed that the district could no longer use a process known as direct certification to identify FARMS-eligible students at Provision 2 schools. These schools have at least 80 percent of students eligible for subsidized meals, and only have to update their percentage of those eligible students every four years.

Under U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations, direct certification allows schools to match students’ enrollment information with families who participate in federal benefits programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. This allows districts to quickly gather students’ subsidized-meal data without duplicating the efforts of welfare offices. About 380,000 students attend Provision 2 schools in the Los Angeles district.

The demand for gathering the information family by family was extremely problematic for Los Angeles not only because of the district’s size, but the number of families where there are undocumented immigrants, low levels of English proficiency, and an unfamiliarity with such paperwork, Mr. Zazueta said.

“It’s not just an urban issue. Any place where you have high concentrations of poverty, I think this is going to be a legitimate issue,” Mr. Zazueta said.

But Ms. Gabel said that to her knowledge, the department never removed the option of direct certification for determining FARMS eligibility at those schools. In fact, she noted that it’s a more efficient process than gathering information directly from families. (Mr. Zazueta cited as his source the School Services of California, an information and advocacy service for districts.)

There was also a major concern about time. Ruth Quinto, the chief financial officer for the Fresno Unified district, which has 79 Provision 2 schools enrolling 55,000 students out of about 75,000 students total, said that initially, this new data on a student-by-student basis was due to the state Oct. 2. This was an unrealistic time frame that revealed problems with how the state funding formula was actually being applied to districts.

“Frankly, there are so many aspects of the LCFF that are yet to be determined,” Ms. Quinto said.

Yet again, Ms. Gabel said that district officials misunderstood the actual timeline. The individual-level FARMS data is actually due on Dec. 13, 2013, she said. In addition, the amendment window in which districts can subsequently correct that kind of data in the state system has been extended from Feb. 7 to March 21, 2014.

Greater Urgency

Some California districts, she said, are used to collecting this kind of individual data every year. The department is urging legislators and the governor’s office to ensure that districts are held harmless for any data collection challenges that occur in the 2013-14 school year and in the future.

Ms. Quinto said that without pressure from districts, the state would not have backtracked on those issues, but Ms. Gabel attributed the districts’ reactions to misunderstandings that have been clarified.

Fresno has plans in place to try to reach families whose students’ FARMS eligibility isn’t captured by direct certification, she said, but the new funding system makes it more likely the district could miss out on per-pupil funding that it’s entitled to if some of those families are unresponsive.

In the 2011-12 school year, 86 percent of California students deemed FARMS-eligible were identified through direct certification, according to a Mathematica report published in 2012. But counting every student as eligible is now crucially important, given the state funding formula’s emphasis on low-income students.

“Now I really need to identify all of those families,” Ms. Quinto said.

Lingering Uncertainty

Even the forms for families not participating in direct certification have caused concerns. The form the state provided to districts to obtain information from those households was only an initial suggestion, Ms. Gabel said.

“They need a resource right now,” she said of districts.

In Ms. Quinto’s view, however, the suggested form is intimidating to some parents. She said the form provided for districts to use seeks adults’ Social Security information. The department said it is working on finalized forms that in fact don’t require that information—the only key information required would be the household’s size, gross household income, basic demographic information on a student, and a parent or guardian’s signature.

Fresno has developed its own form to better fit its community, Ms. Quinto said, but the district isn’t sure if the state will approve its use.

State support for districts during the first two years of major changes in data requirements is crucial, said Ms. McMahon from the Data Quality Campaign. This individualized data, in turn, is important because in the long run, she noted, state officials and the public will want to know if the state funding formula is living up to the predictions from supporters: “There also needs to be a better understanding: Is it working? Is it helping?”

A version of this article appeared in the October 02, 2013 edition of Education Week as Data Demands Spark Outcry in California

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