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Concentrated Disadvantage in California Schools: The New Status Quo

7853256366_13ecd17e8a_k Source: Nick Kenrick / CC BY Flickr

In Brief

There is a new status quo in California schools: most students now attend schools with high levels of concentrated socio-economic disadvantage. This brief explores the various aspects of disadvantage for California’s students, including geography, magnitude, and future prospects.

Key Findings

  • 72% of California students attend schools in which over half the students are socio-economically disadvantaged (i.e. low-income, English learner, and/or foster child).
  • By contrast, only 2% of California students attend schools in which less than one-tenth of students are socio-economically disadvantaged.
  • Student academic achievement is clearly and negatively correlated to school district socio-economic disadvantage. Considering API and SAT scores, students in districts with high rates of disadvantage consistently perform worse than students in districts with low rates of disadvantage.
  • The new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) allocates a greater proportion of state funds to school districts with more concentrated disadvantage, but whether funds will reach students in need or change their academic achievement is unknown.


Where children live traditionally determines where they attend school, making schools reflections of their neighborhoods. Neighborhoods of high-income, highly educated families have schools with high-performing students that attract quality teachers, donations, and extra-curricular programs. On the other hand, low-income neighborhoods and their associated education and funding challenges deter new teachers and fatigue current ones. In these ways, neighborhoods influence the quality and resources of their schools.

The relationship between neighborhood and school quality becomes even starker as income segregation and inequality trend upward. This is true in cities and suburbs across the country. Resource disparities have consequently become a key issue in debates over educational equity.

In California, we see the impact of resource disparities in teacher quality and retention, classroom facilities, and arguably most importantly, student academic achievement.

The state’s recent Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) attempts to reverse the existing relationship between socio-economic disadvantage and resource allocation. The new funding system offers more funding to school districts with higher concentrations of disadvantaged students. It requires schools to calculate the percentage of their student bodies that are comprised of either low-income, English learner, and/or foster children. This percentage is called the Unduplicated Pupil Percentage (UPP). The UPP essentially represents each school’s concentration of socio-economic disadvantage.

As the state phases in these funding reforms, it is an optimal time to assess the extent to which disadvantage and academic achievement pose challenges to schools.

Finding 1: Concentrated Disadvantage is the Status Quo

Fig1 Count

72% of California students attend schools in which over half of the students are considered socio-economically disadvantaged. Furthermore, 44% of students attend schools in which over two-thirds of the students are socio-economically disadvantaged. By contrast, only 2% of students (approximately 116,000) students attend schools in which less than one-tenth of students are disadvantaged. These students represent a select group from only 32 of the state’s 944 school districts.

Finding 2: Disadvantage Affects Districts in All Regions

High concentrations of disadvantage occur in school districts throughout the state, regardless of region or district size. The highest levels of disadvantage occur in the state’s populous urban Los Angeles County and throughout the state’s rural Central Valley.

Rural districts along the state’s eastern border have disproportionately more disadvantaged students, although the percent disadvantaged are often magnified due to small student populations.

School districts with low UPPs are the exception rather than the norm. These districts are largely limited to the state’s immediate coastal regions and the greater Bay Area region.

Finding 3: Average Student Performance Strongly Tied to Socio-Economic Disadvantage

Research almost universally acknowledges that socio-economic status influences educational opportunities and achievement. Average student achievement is inversely correlated to concentrated disadvantage (as disadvantage goes up, scores go down).

The API score is a combination of STAR exam results in multiple subjects and is a common measure of a school district’s overall academic achievement. Overall, the higher the concentration of disadvantage per district, the lower the API score (Figure 3). A district with 10% UPP had a median API of 935, compared to a median score of 730 for districts with 90% UPP.

Average district SAT scores (2013) are even more strongly correlated with student disadvantage (Figure 4). The median SAT score among school districts with 10% UPP was 1751 out of a possible 2400. Conversely, the median SAT score for school districts with 90% UPP was 1247.

The tight SAT ranges within each level of disadvantage are especially revealing. Even the top performing 90% UPP district scored below than the bottom performing 10% UPP district. The stratification in SAT performance reveals that ambitious students in high-disadvantage districts underperform, even compared to the lowest-achieving SAT takers in low-disadvantage districts. Overall, districts’ UPP explains approximately 73% of the variation in SAT scores.

Finding 4: LCFF Funding Increases Will Supplement School Districts with High Needs

The Local Control Funding Formula attempts to reverse the pattern of disadvantage and poor academic achievement by granting additional funds to districts with higher UPPs. Compared to last year (2012-13), districts with higher UPPs are receiving greater state revenues through the LCFF (Figure 5). However, it is unclear whether these funds will change academic outcomes, or even reach disadvantaged students.

The evidence is mixed on if greater school funding results in stronger improvements in academic performance. In some cases, studies found that equity-based funding reforms (such as the LCFF) were able to produce increases in SAT scores, high school graduation, and college attendance rates (most notably in Card and Payne, 2002). However, other studies found the opposite: large-scale per-pupil funding increases over time had no effect on student achievement (see Hanushek and Lindseth, 2009).

Further, the critical factor is how school districts spend additional funds. National trends show increased spending on “non-classroom” programs and services and administrative costs, calling into question how much of the additional LCFF funding will directly support classrooms. Preliminary analysis of Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs), which document a district’s spending plan, indicate that many districts are simply restoring support programs and funds that were cut during the recession. If that is the case, LCFF funds are unlikely to drive new improvements to classrooms.

Moreover, while the LCFF bolsters school district revenue, other burdens – such as heavy healthcare and retirement liabilities and the scheduled lapse of Proposition 30 — will soon cut into school budgets. These upcoming changes undermine LCFF increases and leave many concerns regarding the state’s ability to maintain higher K-12 funding levels.


For years, increasing poverty rates and rising levels of socio-economic disadvantage have been part and parcel of the narrative about inadequate student performance. We now see the culmination of these trends: Most California students now attend schools with substantial concentrations of socio-economically disadvantaged students. Further, concentrated disadvantage is strongly and negatively correlated with student achievement.

Even the most ambitious students in highly disadvantaged districts are not academically competitive with the lowest-performing students in highly advantaged districts. This is the new reality.

These trends have left Californians searching for solutions to the state’s growing educational inequalities. The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) is intended to redistribute a greater proportion of funds to school districts with needier students. The reform relies on the belief that by giving school districts more funds and greater autonomy over those funds will result in stronger academic performance. Yet, there is no consensus regarding the path towards consistent improvement in student achievement despite worsening economic conditions.

In the end, the LCFF should be viewed as a ambitious strategy with lofty aspirations and an unstable foundation. We do not yet know what results it will produce, especially in light of districts’ growing financial burdens.

Here is what we know: at this rate, the state’s current trajectory will allow for a few successful students in a sea of under-performing ones.

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