What are Basic Aid districts?

by Jeff Camp | February 3, 2024 | 0 Comments
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Overflowing funds for schools?

As we’ve written regularly, California’s public schools are not generally overflowing with resources. Their cup does not run over. Oddly, though, overflowing is actually part of the design of the school finance system system.

Virtually all K-12 public school students in California attend a school funded by a mix of (mostly) state income taxes and (some) local property taxes. This mixed-source funding system, the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), serves about 96% of the students in the state.

About 4% of California students attend a school in a Basic Aid district. Here’s how that works.

Phased in from 2013-14 through 2018-19, LCFF replaced a complex and unfair school funding system with one designed for fairness and flexibility. The LCFF system is widely recognized as rational, explainable, and, well, good policy. Among other things, LCFF eliminated a bunch of regulation-heavy state programs, and empowered school districts to make more of the decisions about how to spend the money entrusted to them.

In 2022-23, just 3.7% of California’s public school students attended a school that is not part of the LCFF system. Basic Aid districts (also sometimes called Community Funded or Excess Tax districts) are the exceptions in the LCFF system. In these districts, the revenue from local property taxes is greater than the minimum guaranteed on a per-student basis through the LCFF calculation. In principle, these districts are self-funded, and might receive only a minimal amount of funding from the state — thus the term Basic Aid.

Did you notice wiggle words in the sentences above? Hmm. I’ll come back to them.

Did you notice the word might in the sentence above? Hmm. I’ll come back to it. Fair warning: this post spelunks some deep policy junk. I’ll do my best to get it right based on the data I have. (If I make mistakes, please contact me. This stuff is hard to get right!)

The point of this post is to demystify the Basic Aid system as a way of helping to understand what LCFF does and why it matters so much. It’s also interesting as a case study of how change actually happens, complete with the power plays and tradeoffs sometimes involved in getting to yes.

How does LCFF fund school districts?

You can’t appreciate LCFF without at least a little bit of context, so here’s some high-speed background. (Leans back, stretches.) OK, here goes:

The school funding systems that came before LCFF started out breathtakingly unequal, but got better over decades of change.

1960s:
In the 1960s and earlier, California public schools were funded almost entirely locally, using local taxes on local property wealth. This was deeply unfair, because the value of taxable property varied wildly from one school district to another. Low-income neighborhood with a low tax base? Sorry, kids. Better luck next decade.

1970s:
In the 1970s the system did change, and in a big way. Responding to massive inequity in school funding, the courts blew up the school funding system, Robin Hood-style. A system of court-ordered revenue limits redistributed wealth and sparked political fire. It was only a matter of time before…

1980s:
…yep, voters blew up the funding system again in 1978 by passing Proposition 13, which slashed property taxes. This sent school funding in California into a tailspin, so it was only a matter of time before…

1990s:
…voters intervened again by passing Proposition 98. It took form in the 1990s. Prop 98 established in the state constitution a minimum level for education spending when local and state spending is considered together. It’s ugly, but it rescued public education and we still rely on it.

In combination, these voter measures inverted the tax system, swapping property taxes with state income taxes as the main source of school funding.

To be clear, the system that emerged in the ‘90s worked, but it was a Frankenstein monster. Features of the system included revenue limits, categorical programs, precedents, line items, exceptions and plenty of special deals. Reform-minded people hoped it might just be a matter of time before…

2010s:
…a crisis brought a chance to make a more purposeful system. The Great Recession trashed education funding and delivered the opportunity of a long-needed crisis. Partly responding to good advice from a nonpartisan expert panel (the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence) the legislature blew up the system again in 2012 — in a good way. In place of the old system, California leaders instituted LCFF, a much more rational and fair education finance system assembled with far fewer sloppy sutures and neck bolts.

Only a few, in fact. (Yes, yes, be patient. We’ll get there, I promise.)

Um, what does LCFF do, again?

Here’s a simplified bucket metaphor for the Local Control Funding Formula system.

  1. The state budget gives your district a bucket of LCFF revenue that’s just the right LCFF size for your LCFF district.
  2. Local property taxpayers pour in property taxes, partly filling your LCFF bucket. (37% for the average district in 2022.)
  3. The state adds state taxes until your LCFF bucket is full to the brim, like this:

Does this look too simple? Of course it does. Let’s fix that a little but stay with the metaphor. Time for some fine print:

  • The size of your district’s LCFF bucket is a factor of the state budget.
  • Your bucket is a little bigger to the extent that you have more kids in higher grades.
  • Also to the extent that you have students in poverty, learning English, homeless, or in foster care.
  • Also the bucket is sized up if you have lots of kids with any of these attributes — but don’t count ‘em twice.
  • Oh, and funds evaporate from the bucket to the extent kids don’t attend school — they only count when they show up.

But this is a metaphor, and it’s simplified, remember? The big point is that as an LCFF district, what matters is the size of your LCFF bucket, not the mix of funding sources that fill it. State? Local? Doesn’t matter — dollars are dollars.

What’s different about funding in a Basic Aid district?

Continuing with the metaphor, Basic Aid districts have a standard LCFF-sized bucket, but they have more than enough local revenue to fill it themselves, without state help.

The local property taxes collected for K-12 at a Basic Aid district would overflow an LCFF-sized bucket, so basic aid districts have their own buckets to keep the extra. Local property tax dollars at a Basic Aid district stay local, even when they exceed the LCFF level.

Remember all the fine print about how LCFF districts get a little extra money for this and that, but only if kids show up for nose count, etc? None of that matters at a Basic Aid district. The budget for a Basic Aid district is determined by how much property tax comes in. That’s pretty much it, mostly. (Notice the wiggle words? Stay with me.)

Being a student in a Basic Aid district is generally a good thing for students but not automatically so. Some Basic Aid school districts bring in property taxes at a level that puts them only marginally or intermittently over the LCFF line, so it’s not like they are definitely getting a bunch of extra money. In a downturn, these districts worry, with reason, whether they would receive emergency support from the state or federal government. They tend to be extra careful about saving adequate rainy-day reserves locally. Many Basic Aid school districts are located in the most expensive areas of the state, so they are not without fiscal challenges.

And yet. Some schools in Basic Aid districts have money other school communities can only dream of. Some of them have even more than that… if they also get Minimum State Aid. (You have now arrived at the heart of the mystery.)

What is Minimum State Aid (MSA)?

The LCFF system wasn’t born like Minerva, fully-formed and shining like justice. It is a surprisingly decent outcome of messy political processes. The bad old system that preceded it (Revenue Limits, Categorical Funds and backroom deals) wasn’t equally bad for everyone. For some districts it was pretty good, actually, so why would their representatives vote to change it?

A deal’s a deal, right?

A spoonful of sugar called Minimum State Aid (MSA) made the medicine go down.

With the help of advisors including Mike Kirst, Governor Brown negotiated a set of financial agreements to protect districts that stood to lose out in the transition to LCFF. Minimum State Aid was a mechanism to get that done. By agreeing to support LCFF, some legislators secured promises for ongoing state aid for their constituents’ schools. The commitments are still in place. Hey, a deal’s a deal, right? In 2022-23, minimum state aid commitments to school districts totaled about $125 million.

Where does the extra money go?

The map below shows all of the unified (K-12) school districts that receive Basic Aid and/or Minimum State Aid. Most are located in the Bay Area, in coastal counties or in the Sierras. This pattern has been stable for decades. A map of the state’s Elementary districts or High School districts would show a similar pattern. (Hover or click for details.)

The map effectively shows which unified districts receive money, but doesn’t make it very obvious just how significantly some of the school districts in the Silicon Valley benefit from the extra local and state funds. Basic Aid schools in the high-cost Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties receive thousands of dollars of extra funds this way. Collectively, they serve more than 100,000 students.

About two-fifths of the students who benefit from either or both kinds of extra aid are in unified school districts.

District type

Students (ADA)

Districts

Local extra funding

Local extra per student

State extra funds (MSA excl. COEs)

State extra per student (MSA excl. COEs)

Elementary

76,487

70

328,470,002

4,294

56,744,650

814

Unified

94,004

30

603,105,494

6,416

56,744,650

951

High School

53,666

12

306,272,897

5,707

19,740796

651

Total

224,157

112

1,237,848,393

5,522

125,782,845

832

Should the system change?

Some will look at this data and feel jealous of the districts that have more money for their education system. Certainly, the system of MSAs is the outcome of politically-negotiated deals. But that’s not the point of this post.

Colleges can be Basic Aid, too.
Similar to public K-12 school districts, most public community college districts in California are funded by a blend of local taxes and state taxes. (The Student Centered Funding Formula, or SCFF, strongly resembles LCFF.)
Also similar to K-12 and LCFF, some college districts receive enough local funding to be Basic Aid institutions. As of 2024, the Basic Aid public college districts in the state strongly matched the self-funded K-12 districts: San Mateo, Marin, Mira Costa, South Orange, West Valley/Mission, San Jose/Evergreen, Napa Valley, San Luis Obispo County, and Sierra.

The LCFF system is an astonishing achievement of public policy, accomplished in the real world. It works very well for most of what we ask of it. Anyway, clawing funds away from places where they are being used to educate kids seems a waste of indignation.

I grew up in the bad old days of California education policy. The education finance system at that time was bananas. It was a murky mess so unfair that it was hard to feel good about putting more money into it. Today, we’re in a much better place. When incremental money flows to public education in today’s K-12 system, by design it goes toward need, not greed.

There’s plenty of room for improvement in California’s education system, but the basic finance system is sound. With more economic effort to invest in our state’s schools, we could reasonably expect good results.

California’s basic aid districts and MSA recipients

In the table below, the “UD%” column shows the unduplicated percentage of students who are learning English, are from lower-income households, are homeless, or are in foster care. Statewide, 57% of students meet this definition. In Basic Aid and MSA recipient districts the rate is 32%, but it varies from 1% to 94%. If you want to go even deeper into the data, enjoy.

California Basic Aid districts and Minimum State Aid districts, 2022-23

County

Type

District

Sdts

UD%

Local
extra $

State extra MSA $

Local extra $ per student

State extra $ per student

Alameda

ELEM

Mountain House Elementary

20

74%

92,161

196,668

4,726

10,086

Alpine

UNIFIED

Alpine County Unified

86

62%

275,084

476,520

3,202

5,546

Butte

ELEM

Golden Feather Union Elementary

67

88%

85,628

361,499

1,283

5,417

Calaveras

ELEM

Vallecito Union

534

53%

1,754,842

628,691

3,285

1,177

Calaveras

HIGH

Bret Harte Union High

591

38%

5,097,280

121,048

8,626

205

El Dorado

ELEM

Latrobe

154

13%

1,020,697

-

6,646

698

El Dorado

ELEM

Silver Fork Elementary

16

53%

89,238

183,846

5,574

11,483

Fresno

ELEM

Big Creek Elementary

36

84%

387,502

212,212

10,681

5,849

Fresno

ELEM

Pine Ridge Elementary

75

42%

1,020,990

121,244

13,690

1,626

Inyo

ELEM

Round Valley Joint Elementary

48

46%

597,152

97,223

12,548

2,043

Inyo

UNIFIED

Big Pine Unified

148

64%

666,546

248,617

4,513

1,683

Inyo

UNIFIED

Lone Pine Unified

340

65%

673,110

445,343

1,981

1,311

Inyo

UNIFIED

Owens Valley Unified

82

45%

641,535

28,793

7,821

351

Kern

ELEM

General Shafter Elementary

175

66%

635,929

152,886

3,634

874

Kern

ELEM

Linns Valley-Poso Flat Union

18

57%

135,930

65,262

7,637

3,666

Kern

ELEM

McKittrick Elementary

51

47%

1,967,701

184,477

38,432

3,603

Kern

ELEM

Midway Elementary

51

55%

575,475

95,884

11,375

1,895

Los Angeles

UNIFIED

Beverly Hills Unified

3,264

21%

26,714,185

1,338,733

8,184

410

Los Angeles

UNIFIED

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified

9,459

28%

5,400,952

8,585,843

571

908

Marin

ELEM

Bolinas-Stinson Union

93

43%

2,827,080

229,708

30,514

2,479

Marin

ELEM

Mill Valley Elementary

2,604

9%

1,287,739

1,736,292

494

667

Marin

ELEM

Nicasio

36

49%

298,791

39,589

8,360

1,108

Marin

ELEM

Reed Union Elementary

1,165

7%

8,009,036

-

6,875

-

Marin

ELEM

Ross Elementary

362

1%

2,369,647

185,455

6,552

513

Marin

ELEM

Sausalito Marin City

321

59%

3,984,538

815,163

12,421

2,541

Marin

HIGH

Tamalpais Union High

4,893

11%

19,341,999

704,071

3,953

144

Marin

UNIFIED

Shoreline Unified

370

63%

6,033,131

877,629

16,287

2,369

Mendocino

ELEM

Manchester Union Elementary

37

61%

205,854

72,102

5,550

1,944

Mendocino

HIGH

Point Arena Joint Union High

131

65%

2,315,256

326,425

17,721

2,498

Mendocino

UNIFIED

Mendocino Unified

401

54%

1,161,698

1,556,031

2,899

3,883

Mono

UNIFIED

Eastern Sierra Unified

393

53%

3,591,356

959,729

9,132

2,440

Monterey

UNIFIED

Carmel Unified

2,299

19%

39,487,401

1,684,362

17,176

733

Monterey

UNIFIED

Pacific Grove Unified

1,792

21%

11,983,330

2,505,456

6,687

1,398

Napa

ELEM

Howell Mountain Elementary

95

57%

614,415

54,770

6,437

574

Napa

ELEM

Pope Valley Union Elementary

51

84%

761,081

73,930

14,911

1,448

Napa

UNIFIED

Calistoga Joint Unified

824

82%

6,776,722

508,956

8,228

618

Napa

UNIFIED

Saint Helena Unified

1,148

44%

23,465,062

481,492

20,442

419

Nevada

ELEM

Nevada City Elementary

638

33%

1,038,105

631,011

1,628

990

Orange

UNIFIED

Laguna Beach Unified

2,629

18%

38,545,395

548,204

14,663

209

Orange

UNIFIED

Newport-Mesa Unified

18,535

45%

124,718,168

7,634,726

6,729

412

Placer

UNIFIED

Tahoe-Truckee Unified

3,664

36%

20,711,853

1,906,330

5,652

520

Riverside

UNIFIED

Desert Center Unified

25

84%

1,199,773

120,493

47,838

4,804

San Benito

ELEM

Willow Grove Union Elementary

16

94%

68,358

22,963

4,307

1,447

San Benito

UNIFIED

Aromas - San Juan Unified

937

59%

1,060,437

1,560,937

1,132

1,666

San Bernardino

ELEM

Cucamonga Elementary

2,331

71%

10,802,323

2,130,982

4,634

914

San Bernardino

UNIFIED

Baker Valley Unified

123

84%

115,931

182,560

939

1,479

San Diego

ELEM

Cardiff Elementary

608

16%

4,381,838

386,643

7,204

636

San Diego

ELEM

Del Mar Union Elementary

3,933

19%

18,418,833

1,170,350

4,683

298

San Diego

ELEM

Encinitas Union Elementary

4,908

19%

8,827,772

1,840,774

1,799

375

San Diego

ELEM

Rancho Santa Fe Elementary

566

9%

5,671,672

157,463

10,014

278

San Diego

ELEM

Solana Beach Elementary

2,815

20%

20,282,502

1,663,990

7,205

591

San Diego

HIGH

Julian Union High

96

52%

457,033

347,758

4,750

3,614

San Luis Obispo

ELEM

Cayucos Elementary

173

39%

1,651,296

133,560

9,558

773

San Luis Obispo

ELEM

Pleasant Valley Joint Union Elementary

54

36%

243,244

124,441

4,471

2,287

San Luis Obispo

UNIFIED

Coast Unified

525

77%

3,663,493

623,045

6,984

1,188

San Luis Obispo

UNIFIED

San Luis Coastal Unified

7,183

39%

6,015,215

3,029,242

837

422

San Mateo

ELEM

Belmont-Redwood Shores Elementary

4,043

16%

1,878,302

253,946

465

63

San Mateo

ELEM

Brisbane Elementary

442

27%

4,664,344

182,688

10,544

413

San Mateo

ELEM

Hillsborough City Elementary

1,235

4%

12,772,173

172,044

10,344

139

San Mateo

ELEM

Las Lomitas Elementary

1,055

13%

14,157,348

264,400

13,414

251

San Mateo

ELEM

Menlo Park City Elementary

2,595

13%

15,133,234

432,027

5,832

166

San Mateo

ELEM

Portola Valley Elementary

468

9%

9,662,831

146,571

20,657

313

San Mateo

ELEM

San Bruno Park Elementary

2,217

47%

2,013,375

553,758

908

250

San Mateo

ELEM

San Carlos Elementary

2,803

12%

356,008

1,575,946

127

562

San Mateo

ELEM

San Mateo-Foster City

10,775

41%

6,452,223

7,821,366

599

726

San Mateo

ELEM

Woodside Elementary

318

13%

6,255,152

165,217

19,670

520

San Mateo

HIGH

Jefferson Union High

3,946

37%

3,978,680

2,752,472

1,008

698

San Mateo

HIGH

San Mateo Union High

8,618

28%

71,203,302

3,705,980

8,262

430

San Mateo

HIGH

Sequoia Union High

8,253

32%

72,848,088

3,369,327

8,827

408

San Mateo

UNIFIED

La Honda-Pescadero Unified

274

58%

1,129,155

213,482

4,125

780

San Mateo

UNIFIED

South San Francisco Unified

7,776

45%

29,490,038

3,356,626

3,793

432

Santa Barbara

ELEM

Ballard Elementary

134

10%

411,315

277,420

3,081

2,078

Santa Barbara

ELEM

Cold Spring Elementary

185

5%

2,499,103

90,129

13,509

487

Santa Barbara

ELEM

College Elementary

169

60%

2,345,042

501,743

13,898

2,974

Santa Barbara

ELEM

Goleta Union Elementary

3,415

41%

12,455,125

2,278,858

3,647

667

Santa Barbara

ELEM

Hope Elementary

864

35%

2,630,005

348,218

3,045

403

Santa Barbara

ELEM

Los Olivos Elementary

158

25%

319,857

247,660

2,022

1,566

Santa Barbara

ELEM

Montecito Union Elementary

361

11%

12,149,289

181,307

33,692

503

Santa Barbara

ELEM

Vista del Mar Union

25

40%

587,775

133,020

23,502

5,319

Santa Barbara

HIGH

Santa Ynez Valley Union High

846

26%

4,000,568

-

4,732

-

Santa Barbara

UNIFIED

Carpinteria Unified

2,030

73%

1,174,846

1,205,011

579

594

Santa Clara

ELEM

Campbell Union

448

76%

13,399,741

7,403,399

29,890

16,514

Santa Clara

ELEM

Lakeside Joint

69

20%

759,887

133,641

10,957

1,927

Santa Clara

ELEM

Loma Prieta Joint Union Elementary

452

10%

166,701

209,738

369

464

Santa Clara

ELEM

Los Altos Elementary

3,688

14%

13,123,844

654,207

3,558

177

Santa Clara

ELEM

Los Gatos Union Elementary

2,754

9%

8,827,300

121,495

3,206

44

Santa Clara

ELEM

Mountain View Whisman

4,736

35%

18,410,230

3,714,457

3,888

784

Santa Clara

ELEM

Orchard Elementary

788

58%

19,487

795,884

25

1,010

Santa Clara

ELEM

Saratoga Union Elementary

1,640

9%

18,250,617

324,666

11,132

198

Santa Clara

ELEM

Sunnyvale

5,889

44%

32,299,438

2,907,954

5,485

494

Santa Clara

HIGH

Campbell Union High

8,371

36%

4,610,652

3,827,724

551

457

Santa Clara

HIGH

Fremont Union High

10,382

17%

51,481,750

1,455,766

4,959

140

Santa Clara

HIGH

Los Gatos-Saratoga Union High

3,344

8%

20,325,848

150,691

6,079

45

Santa Clara

HIGH

Mountain View-Los Altos Union High

4,196

16%

50,612,441

2,979,534

12,061

710

Santa Clara

UNIFIED

Palo Alto Unified

10,339

17%

116,436,307

2,560,485

11,262

248

Santa Clara

UNIFIED

Santa Clara Unified

14,220

46%

116,396,229

9,818,349

8,185

690

Santa Cruz

ELEM

Bonny Doon Union Elementary

127

18%

536,043

117,428

4,225

926

Santa Cruz

ELEM

Happy Valley Elementary

109

12%

41,821

73,875

382

675

Santa Cruz

ELEM

Santa Cruz City Elementary

1,832

42%

9,072,761

1,104,695

4,953

603

Sonoma

ELEM

Alexander Valley Union Elementary

108

29%

678,844

298,328

6,301

2,769

Sonoma

ELEM

Forestville Union Elementary

48

39%

1,543,589

439,479

31,978

9,105

Sonoma

ELEM

Fort Ross Elementary

13

65%

179,867

72,066

13,585

5,443

Sonoma

ELEM

Guerneville Elementary

24

60%

307,010

471,540

13,064

20,066

Sonoma

ELEM

Horicon Elementary

56

84%

1,032,594

112,358

18,522

2,015

Sonoma

ELEM

Kenwood

58

23%

1,743,327

101,864

30,303

1,771

Sonoma

ELEM

Monte Rio Union Elementary

69

73%

353,287

129,882

5,150

1,893

Sonoma

ELEM

Montgomery Elementary

20

56%

255,422

91,797

12,848

4,618

Sonoma

UNIFIED

Geyserville Unified

125

59%

1,429,580

410,531

11,459

3,291

Sonoma

UNIFIED

Healdsburg Unified

1,295

61%

6,859,207

1,012,698

5,295

782

Sonoma

UNIFIED

Sonoma Valley Unified

3,422

57%

6,414,668

2,206,444

1,875

645

Tuolumne

ELEM

Twain Harte

251

50%

618,322

623,250

2,466

2,486

Tuolumne

UNIFIED

Big Oak Flat-Groveland Unified

296

53%

875,087

657,983

2,951

2,219

Source: CDE, 2022-23. Excludes County Offices of Education.

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