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New Rules Could Cost Low-Income San Diego Schools Millions In Funding

California’s new school funding system is meant to send more money to schools to support high-need students. But the challenge of counting low-income students could cost San Diego Unified schools at least $6 million, according to the district's head of government relations.

Aired 12/10/13 on KPBS News.

Counting low-income students is a barrier to getting additional funding intended to support those students under California's new funding system.

At more than one-third of San Diego city schools at least 80 percent of students come from low-income families. Under federal rules, all students at those 68 schools automatically get free lunches and the schools only have to collect family-income information every four years.

But to get extra money for low-income students under the state’s new school funding system, districts have to verify family incomes every year. Martha Alvarez, head of government relations for the San Diego Unified School District, said the state only finalized those rules in October, which left the district distributing the forms at parent-teacher conferences in November.

“It was our way of being strategic about getting those forms out to parents," she said. "But I think that the concern now is, are we going to get them back? We’re talking about thousands of dollars for those kids that would not be submitting those forms back.”

Three of the 68 schools had turned in families’ forms by last week, but Alvarez said the district will have a better idea of how many of the 40,000 students enrolled in the district's high-poverty schools returned the form later this week. The district's deadline was Friday.

Alvarez said the district is requesting that the state use federal counts of low income families for this year. That way, Alvarez said, schools would have time to educate parents about why filling out one more form is so important. She also pointed to families' fears about immigration status as a barrier to getting an accurate count of low-income students, and the stigma some feel if they qualify for free school lunches.

But state officials said letting some districts avoid paperwork that others already had completed would be unfair.

"We have to make sure that the (new system) is being driven by real students and their needs," said Erin Gabel, California Department of Education director of government affairs.

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