Students rallied outside the Los Angeles Unified School Board meeting on April 10, 2018, aiming to push district leaders to pass changes to the district's equity index. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC)
Starting next year, Los Angeles Unified School District officials will consider asthma rates and injuries from gun violence in neighborhoods near its campuses to help decide which district schools are most in need of extra funding.
Those are among nearly a dozen new factors L.A. Unified officials will use to rank schools by their level of student need. Among the new metrics: graduation rates, test scores, how many fights a school sees and even how well incoming students fared academically in their old schools.
The L.A. Unified School Board voted unanimously Tuesday night to add these factors and others to its Student Equity Needs Index (SENI), a formula it has used to divvy up a relatively small portion of its overall budget to around 780 schools across the district since 2014.
The rewritten index — "SENI 2.0," as its backers called it — still takes into account whether a school serves high numbers of low-income students, foster youth and English learners.
Those three groups of students all generate extra funding for L.A. Unified under California's school funding law — and that law nominally requires districts to use that extra funding to pay for new services for those students.
But the vast majority of L.A. Unified students fit into at least one of these three groups.
For years, activist groups — most of them from South and East L.A. — have sought a rewrite to the district's formula, saying L.A. Unified officials need to meaningfully differentiate needy schools from the neediest schools, and target funding to those schools more carefully. (One group even sued the district over concerns the neediest students were being shortchanged; the case was recently settled.)
Hence the desire to include new metrics that might illustrate more vividly the level of student need in a school — such as measures of asthma cases and gun injuries in neighborhoods around the school.
"We’ve consistently found," said John Kim, executive director of the Advancement Project of California, "that asthma severity and non-fatal gunshot injuries are the best proxy predictors for additional trauma and additional health burdens that these students face."
Nearly 100 student and parent supporters from organizing groups like Inner City Struggle and the Community Coalition of South L.A. packed the meeting, waving signs and pounding drums just outside, urging board members to proceed with the rewrite.
"It's just really dope," said Edna Chavez, a senior at Manual Arts High School, who emerged exuberant from Tuesday's meeting. Chavez is also a student leader in the Community Coalition.
"This was really important," Chavez added, "not only for me, but for my peers and for many students across LAUSD."
But in the sea of SENI 2.0 supporters, another group of more skeptical parents held firm. They contend that within L.A. Unified — a district in which nearly nine out of every 10 students qualifies as low-income — it's not possible to take funds away from even a relatively well-off school without harming services for needy students.
Rachel Greene, a former chair of L.A. Unified's Parent Advisory Committee, said the last time that group studied a similar proposal, "there were concerns about robbing Peter to pay Paul."
"This is the issue, again, of adequacy," added Greene, referring to California's near-worst-in-the-nation levels of per-pupil funding. "If the energy that you’re about to hear would also be redirected toward a [proposed increase in commercial property taxes], we would be talking about something real. Instead, what we’re talking about is shifting deck chairs while we try to maneuver away from icebergs."
Parents also objected to the timing of the board's vote. Initially, the board was supposed to vote on the index in May. But at 4:45 p.m. Monday afternoon, the L.A. Unified board posted notice that it would vote on the new equity index 24 hours later. Even supporters deeply involved in the process were surprised. On a press call just after 5:30 p.m. Monday, supporters expressed surprise to learn the item had been scheduled for a vote.
"This is a very surreptitious way of doing business whereby you trying to hide from something perhaps you don’t want us to know," said Roberto Fonseca, a member of L.A. Unified's Parent Advisory Committee.
The activist groups can't walk away completely satisfied either. As much as they wanted a rewritten Student Needs Equity Index, they also wanted to push the L.A. Unified board to put more money behind that index.
Initially, school board president Mónica García proposed bringing in SENI 2.0 with a big budget splash, committing another $100 million in new funding for its rollout next school year — and yet another $300 million in new funding the year after that.
But other board members balked at that high investment.
After a flurry of last-minute amendments, the L.A. Unified board decided to scrounge up only $25 million in 2018-19 based on SENI 2.0 metrics like asthma rates, gunshot injuries and test scores. The rest of the money will be distributed to schools based on the old index.
And then, in the year after next, SENI 2.0 would be used to divide up a larger pot of money — about $263 million in 2019-20, according to chief financial officer Scott Price — but in total, still not much more than the district says it currently distributes based on the index.
"I'm Mónica García — I always want more," the board member said lightheartedly after the meeting. "And yes, we could've done more, but it was so important to move. ... It's a first step in correcting or addressing the absence of an equity needs index systemwide."
L.A. Unified officials argue that, in terms of the amount of funds the district has discretion in spending, the equity index is a significant program. It accounts for roughly one-fifth of the $1.1 billion in "supplemental and concentration" funds from the state -- funds the district has the greatest flexibility in spending to benefit high-needs students.
Still, UC Berkeley professor Bruce Fuller — who has collaborated with some of the activist groups in the past — noted the district's overall budget stands at more than $7 billion.
"Bottom-line," Fuller wrote in an email Tuesday morning, the new index "could boost the district's progress in raising achievement in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods. But it would still apply to a tiny fraction of the district's overall budget."