By Dr. Margaret Fortune
Governor Gavin Newsom, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Los Angeles) and Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) recently struck a deal that would hurt tens of thousands of California’s Black and Latino children. The deal involves SB 98, a trailer bill to the state budget that contains a controversial provision to keep the same level of funding in school districts with declining student enrollment instead of the money following the student. This deal defunds schools that have increased enrollment and documented academic achievement — schools where California’s Black and Latino parents are taking their children.
In California, school funding has always followed the child to the school where they are enrolled. If a child changes schools, the funding goes with them which is the logical and traditional way it has been done. SB 98 changes all of that and is a slap in the face to the many Black and Latino parents who work hard every day and want the best opportunity for their children to obtain a good, quality education.
The timing couldn’t be worse. Effective schools have already hired teachers to serve the new students who will show up for school in the fall. COVID-19 school closures have caused parents to take a close look at how well (or not) their child’s school responded. Now as schools reopen with distance learning, parents are flocking to districts and public charter schools that showed the receipts with high quality programs last year. So, enrollment is growing at the public schools parents find most effective.
Now the Governor and the Legislature are defunding these very schools to keep public school funding at school districts where the children no longer attend. That’s just wrong.
This school year, all schools are confronted with how to reopen safely amid the coronavirus pandemic, but the state is changing the rules in the middle of the game at the expense of hundreds of public school systems in California that are growing. SB 98’s school funding scheme rescues financially strapped, declining-enrollment school districts like LAUSD and San Diego Unified conveniently located in the legislative districts Speaker Rendon and Senator Atkins represent.
To be clear, the pandemic is not the root cause of fiscal insolvency for school districts like LAUSD, San Diego Unified and Sacramento City USD. These districts were teetering on the brink of bankruptcy before the pandemic due to financial problems of their own making. They’ve been strong-armed for years into teachers union contracts with pension and salary obligations they can’t afford, while student enrollment decreased due to declining birth rates and parent dissatisfaction.
The Governor’s Department of Finance Director Jessica Holmes calls her bail-out of these troubled school districts at the expense of growing schools and the children they serve “equity.”
“From the perspective of an equity lens it was important for us … to ensure that those who had declining enrollment had more stable funding during this crisis, understanding that there may have been less funding available for those that had growing enrollment but also understanding that they were likely in a better financial position going into the COVID-19 crisis,” Holmes said.
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), the Legislature’s leading voice on equity and the chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, disagrees. Weber, whose equity bona fides include putting affirmative action on the ballot in November through Proposition 16, urged her colleagues not to punish growing schools by failing to fund them or putting a cap on charter school growth.
The Sacramento Bee reported that Kenneth Kapphahn from the Legislative Analyst’s Office told state senators that about one-third — more than 300 districts in total — are growing. That may be an underestimate. More than 400 districts — 43 percent — increased in enrollment over the last three years. Their 2020 budgets won’t reflect that growth, impacting tens of thousands of students, including in some of the state’s largest school districts like Elk Grove and Fresno Unified.
Eleven-thousand parents have signed a petition demanding the Governor and the Legislature fix the problem. Public school advocates may consider litigation in response to the state denying school funding for students required by law to attend school.
After signing SB 98, Governor Newsom pledged to revisit this funding cap on growing schools. Concerned parents should keep up the pressure and see to it that the Legislature listens.