California’s Rural Public Education System at a Crossroads
By Juliana Fehrenbacher

A large portion of California’s rural poor live in the Central Valley, a population characterized by high levels of Hispanic migrant farmworkers and English learners. A recent study found that out of 65 rural California towns, labor-intensive agriculture contributes to poverty and welfare demands in rural communities by attracting large numbers of unskilled foreign workers and offering most of them poverty-level wages.[1] In the 65 towns, 28 percent of the residents live in households with below-poverty incomes. Moreover, the same study projected the population to reach 12 million by 2025.

Being one of the fastest-growing regions in the state, much of the Central Valley’s population consists of school-age children, who bring a set of unique challenges to California’s rural education system – including a high population of English learner students and economically disadvantaged students receiving disparate educational outcomes.[2]   Moreover, rural poverty and high-poverty schools in the Central Valley have lower graduation rates than the rest of the state.[3]  When education statistics relating to discipline, class assignment, dropout rate, graduation and enrollment in college are tracked by race, ethnicity, and language, a disproportionate number of Latinos and limited English speaking children are not succeeding in California’s rural schools.[4]

In an attempt to address these disparate educational outcomes, in 2013 California completely restructured the way it funds public education by passing the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF).[5]  The LCFF replaced a complicated funding formula with an opportunity for individual districts to address the unique needs and demographics of the students they serve. As of 2014, California public schools are given a base amount per student, plus supplemental funding address the needs of at-risk subgroups, including of English learner and economically disadvantaged youth. The new funding formula nearly eliminates all categorical programs, so that schools can now spend their funding as they best see fit by replacing state oversight with local control.

The LCFF provides a unique and critical opportunity for schools in California’s Central Valley to address the educational achievement gap faced by many of its rural and high-poverty schools with increased funding aimed at English learner and economically disadvantaged students. But the lack of state oversight and wide discretion given to local educational agencies in how they spend their funding also prompts concern over whether districts will truly use the funding as intended by LCFF. 

The LCFF puts districts in the Central Valley at a crossroads. On the one had, the new funding formula provides schools with an incredible opportunity to provide supplementary and much needed educational services to a student population with historically poor educational outcomes. Yet on the other hand, without full commitment and clear direction by districts to use the funding to benefit English learners and economically disadvantaged students, LCFF may have done away with an oversight system, that while not completely effective, did provide districts with some spending structure. Thus the 2014-2015 school year, the first year LCFF is being fully implemented, is critical in proving the potential of the new funding formula by giving districts the opportunity to make headway in closing educational achievement gap.

Juliana Fehrenbacher is a graduate student in the UC Davis School of Law, where she is Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Juvenile Law and Policy. She is also Chair of King Hall’s Education Advocacy Project, which trains law students to hold educational rights for foster youth who do not have an appropriate adult to make educational decisions, and aims to improve the educational outcomes of foster youth.

(Article originally posted at Legal Ruralism)

[1]J. Edward Taylor & Philip L. Martin, The new rural poverty: Central Valley evolving into patchwork of poverty and prosperity, 54 California Agriculture 1 (2000)
[2] Anne Danenberg, Christopher Jepsen, and Pedro Cerdan, Student and School Indicators for Youth in California’s Central Valley, Public Policy Institute of California.
[3] Id.
[4] CRLA Advocates to Ensure Low-Income, Rural Students Receive Quality Education, California Rural Legal Assistance, (Sept. 6, 2014),
[5] Cal. Educ. Code § 52060-52077