Getting Dollars to Disadvantaged Students: Why Eliminating Concentration Grants Could Water Down School Finance Reform

Should California spend 4 cents on the dollar to provide additional support for school districts with high concentrations of English learners and students from low-income families? Despite the consensus among education stakeholders and policymakers that it costs more to educate disadvantaged students, this question is at the center of the current debate surrounding the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), Governor Brown’s proposal to restructure the state’s K-12 school finance system. The LCFF, the subject of a recently released CBP chartbook, would provide each school district with a base grant per student and a supplemental grant based on the district’s unduplicated number of English learners and students from low-income families. In addition, the LCFF would provide school districts a concentration grant for the share of disadvantaged students above 50 percent of district enrollment. The Governor projects that once the LCFF is fully implemented, 80 percent of its dollars would go toward base grants, 16 percent to supplemental grants, and 4 percent to concentration grants.

What would concentration grants mean for students in school districts with large shares of disadvantaged students? Based on the Governor’s projections, concentration grant funding would be $2.5 billion of the approximately $62 billion in total annual LCFF funding once it is fully implemented — or roughly $790 per disadvantaged student in the districts receiving these grants. This funding, slightly more than 10 percent of the LCFF’s average target base grant, could help pay for additional resources and support — such as instructional materials, services, and/or staff professional development — to address the needs of disadvantaged students. If concentration grant funding were to be allocated to all school districts statewide, such as by shifting the dollars to the base grant, it would dilute the per student grant by almost half — reducing the funding provided to school districts with larger shares of English learners and students from low-income families in order to boost funding for districts with smaller shares of these students.

So, who opposes concentration grants and why? Senate Democrats have proposed legislation that would eliminate concentration grants in the LCFF and use the freed-up dollars to increase base grants and supplemental grants. Opponents of concentration grants argue that these additional dollars would not benefit disadvantaged students in schools with large shares of these students if they are in school districts that are not eligible for concentration grants. However, this argument fails to account for the fact that all school districts that enroll students who are either English learners or from low-income families would receive supplemental grants, which would amount to approximately $2,600 per student statewide. The LCFF allocates 16 percent of its dollars to supplemental grants — four times the level of funding allocated for concentration grants.

The other rationale that has been offered, at least implicitly, for eliminating the concentration grant is that the base grant for all students is not high enough — and that the dollars for the concentration grant should instead go toward raising the base grant. While California undoubtedly needs to find ways to boost its base level of school funding (and an upcoming blog post will discuss the LCFF base funding level), this should not be done at the expense of school districts with large shares of high-need students.

Two-thirds of Californians think schools with more low-income students should receive more state funding, even if this means less funding for other schools. We believe — as does the Governor, based on his May Revision — that the Legislature should heed this strong public support for providing additional resources to disadvantaged students and preserve the concentration grants in the LCFF.

— Jonathan Kaplan