By AIDAN ARASASINGHAM
Adequacy and equitability are commonly used buzzwords in the speeches of politicians and legislators dealing with education issues, yet the Irvine Unified School District (IUSD) has neither. While many state lawmakers, including Governor Jerry Brown, believe state education measures over the past few years have made schooling more adequate and equitable for all students, this is not the case.
After all, how can lawmakers argue that University High School (UHS) has adequate education funding when class sizes rise as high as the thirties and forties? How can legislators argue that education is equitable when, according to the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) proposed a $1.3 billion plan to give every student an iPad in 2013, while here at UHS we barely have enough textbooks for every student in some subjects?
“Our funding is not adequate, and you could not describe it in any way possible as equitable,” said elected IUSD School Board member Sharon Wallin. It can be hard to realize that Irvine, one of the most affluent and desirable communities in America according to both Forbes and Money Magazine, has the one of the lowest rates of school funding in the entire nation.
The most recent report by the U.S. Census in 2013 ranks California, which allocates an average of $9,220 per pupil per year, 36th in the nation for per pupil education spending. In comparison, New York, which ranked first in the nation, allocates $19,818 per pupil per year. In terms of educational quality, California disappointingly ranks 42nd in the nation, according to a study conducted by Education Week.
The picture is even more grim at the state level, where IUSD “may very well be the lowest [funded district] in [California],” according to Wallin. IUSD currently receives a majority of its funds from three locations – state aid, local property taxes and private donations. In the past, state aid accounted for a large portion of IUSD’s general budget, which pays for staff salaries, student materials and general expenditures. However, as a result of recent measures enacted by Governor Jerry Brown in 2013, state funding for IUSD has decreased significantly.
Known as the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), these measures shift a large part of the burden of funding and control for schools from the state to the local level. Prior to 2013, California was on a “revenue limit” system analogous to those in a majority of other states in the U.S. Under this model, a majority of schools received similar levels of funding, regardless of numbers of free-and-reduced lunch, English Language Development (ELD) or foster care students. Governor Brown and the state legislature reformed this situation in 2013 by creating the LCFF, which granted districts with more high-needs students more money.
While noble on paper, many districts found that the implementation of the LCFF meant that money from schools with a smaller proportion of higher-need students was diverted to districts with larger concentrations of higher-need students – a Robin Hood approach with unintended consequences. In effect, the state government is taking critically needed funds from certain school districts to pay for programs in other districts at a time when all schools are struggling to stay viable in a post-recession climate. “The LCFF has caused inequity amongst school districts,” said Wallin. The LCFF is not stealing from the rich to give to the poor; it is stealing from the poor to give to the poorer.
The demographics of Irvine automatically put our schools at a financial disadvantage in relation to others. The LCFF allocates money by providing a base grant to all schools, adding supplemental and concentration grants based on the percentage of higher-needs students in the district. Although Irvine has enough higher-needs students to receive the supplemental grant, our number of higher-needs students is just below the threshold for receiving the concentration grant. As a result, IUSD, and by extension UHS, receives significantly less money than schools in neighboring Santa Ana or Garden Grove, according to Wallin. State cuts from the LCFF coupled with a decline in local revenue as a result of the recession means hard choices need to be made to balance state and local education budgets.
The problem is that, when it comes to budget cuts, fine arts programs are often the first to go. According to Brad Van Patten, the Coordinator for Visual and Performing Arts in IUSD, visual and performing arts programs throughout the state were cut dramatically following the 2008 recession, and only recently has art funding made it back to the measly pre-2008 levels of funding. However, pre-recession funding is not at all sufficient in a post-recession economy, where inflation has increased operating costs across the board.
“The state legislature needs to be more forward thinking in not just assuming that if we are funded at 2007 levels then we’ll be fine,” said Van Patten. “For them to say that they support [fine arts] enough is just ridiculous.” Many members of the arts community here at UHS have felt the lack of funding firsthand, in the form of an increase in the need for outside fundraising efforts or a rise in ticket prices for school concerts and events.
Furthermore, as a result of cuts in state education funding, many necessary projects here at University High School have been put on hold. For instance, UHS is long-overdue for facilities improvement renovations throughout campus.
Five years ago, a team of administrators, teachers, and parents on campus developed a list of pressing facilities improvement needs on our 44 year-old campus. According to Dr. Kevin Astor, these facilities needs included “a new visual and performing arts building … the building of a new library and media center, the conversion of the existing library and media center into a student union, the construction of a foyer for our gym … [and the] renovation of the 400s building.”
University High School, naturally, is not the only school in the district in need of facilities improvement. IUSD estimates that a grand total of $750 million is required to resolve all facilities issues in every aging Irvine school, from fixing broken skylights and faulty air-conditioning units to constructing new theaters and renovating classrooms.
Unfortunately, due to cuts in school funding, these plans have been put on hold indefinitely. Even though facilities improvement is increasingly becoming a major issue statewide, the state government has done little to provide support. The Irvine School Board views a November state bond initiative as our greatest hope for state support, yet it will likely net IUSD a meager $24 million to fix $750 million worth of facilities problems (that is, if it passes in the first place).
In an increasingly interconnected global society, education funding is more than ever a derivative of international economic activity. When the economy does poorly, school districts receive less revenue from sales taxes, parcel taxes, and property taxes. Troublingly, the past few months have seen a decline in the real estate market of Irvine, a trend that School Board member Michael Parham has postulated is a result of last summer’s decline in the Chinese economy.
Although UHS is not on the verge of financial collapse, if these trends continue, then the school could face a precarious situation in coming years. If expenditures continue to increase and revenue continues to decrease – well, it does not take an expert to explain the result.
However, many still remain optimistic about the quality of our schools moving forward. Wallin said, “We’ve always had a very talented staff that really knows how to use their money wisely,” allowing our schools to perform well even under the stress of low funding. A local bond measure will also appear on the June ballot this year, which if passed, will give IUSD $319 million over ten years for facilities improvement.
Looking to the future, Van Patten said, “The good thing about Irvine is that people are passionate and care about [education].” Irvine schools have led the state in educational excellence, and it is clear that residents of Irvine understand that education is not just a social service, but a key investment in the future. With hope, Sacramento will also arrive at this conclusion within the next few years.