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California Districts Fear Big Budget Losses Over Low-Income Verification

School districts in California are sounding the alarm over new burdens placed on them by the state education department that require local K-12 officials to take additional steps to verify students' low-income status. 

The Los Angeles Times reports that large districts, including Los Angeles Unified and San Diego, are claiming that the new requirement, which requires districts to ascertain every year whether students qualify for free and reduced-price meals at schools, could cost them millions of dollars in state aid this year. 

When I wrote about this issue in early October, Erin Gabel, director of government relations for the state education department (who's also quoted in the Times), told me that some districts haven't updated their count of low-income students in a decade. Many districts are allowed to update their counts once every four years. Requiring this data to be updated annually is a significant shift in state policy, and local officials expressed concern about having to knock on doors and collect data on a house-by-house, community-by-community basis.

The shift is connected to the department's longitudinal data system, known as CALPADS. In May, the department required students to be individually identified in CALPADS for a variety of purposes, including their eligibility for subsidized meals, leading to the new income-verification requirement. In addition, the state's new K-12 funding Local Control Funding Formula, which places extra weight on the share of needy students in districts, placed additional importance on getting a more accurate count of low-income students.  

But district officials like L.A. Unified Superintendent John Deasy are demanding the California education department provide them funding for needy students based on last year's count of low-income students—essentially, they're requesting to be "held harmless" regardless of how many families provide them the relevant income data this year. It's easy to see why officials like Deasy are nervous—L.A. Unified has as much as $200 million at stake, according to the Times. The officials also maintain that since they've already given similar data to the federal government, the state shouldn't have a redundant data-reporting process. 

"The whole thing is outrageous," Deasy told the Times. "Give our kids their fair share."

Only about 39 percent of about 138,000 income-verification forms distributed at 380 high-poverty schools in Los Angeles had been returned to the district by its own deadline a few days ago. Local officials are asking the state to use last year's count of students for funding purposes, regardless of how many of the income-verification forms are returned to districts. 

It's also worth noting that in early October, Gabel told me that the districts had misinterpreted some of the regulatory guidance from her department, and that the new data-collection burden wasn't as big as some local officials were claiming. But districts like L.A. Unified and Fresno assured me that the new data-collection process would require much more work, and could still leave many districts without the state funds they feel they're entitled to. Clearly, that conflict, or misunderstanding, depending on your point of view, hasn't been resolved.

As I indicated in my Oct. 1 story for Education Week, because of states' new appetite for all kinds of data about students, it's easy to imagine that California won't be the last state to deal with this kind of issue. 

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