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Capitol Alert

California’s new budget unfairly hurts some of California’s best-performing schools, advocates say

School funding in California has long adhered to the guiding principle that the money follows the student.

But under this year’s education budget, lawmakers and education advocates warn, the state will abandon its traditional allocation formula in favor of a system that harms the very schools — disproportionately, charter schools and personalized education programs — that have performed best under pandemic pressures.

California’s public schools usually receive money based on a combination of the prior year’s funding and the current year’s average daily attendance — a metric that reflects not the number of students enrolled, but rather how many students show up each day.

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Historically, this has meant that if a student switches schools from one year to the next, the money to fund their education moves with them. That will change under budget trailer bills AB 77 and SB 98, which allocate next year’s funding based on attendance through February 29 of this year.

The bills “hold harmless” those schools that experienced sharp declines in attendance when COVID-19 forced campuses across California to close, effectively extending Gov. Gavin Newsom’s March executive order that preserved school funding for this academic year so long as education continued.

Proponents say the legislation preserves educational equity and ensures adequate funding in the most disadvantaged areas. But according to charter school advocates and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, turning an emergency measure into a permanent policy undermines school choice and forces top-performing schools to turn away students — often, those served poorly in traditional schools — looking for another option.

“What the state is essentially proposing is we’re going to protect and essentially reward failing schools, and we’re going to punish schools that have proven that they’re performing well and successful in this COVID crisis,” Association of Personalized Learning Schools & Services (APLUS+) Director Jeff Rice, who represents 75 personalized education programs in California, told The Sacramento Bee. “While so many other public schools had to completely shut down their educational services, we kept them going without missing a heartbeat.”

That seamless transition to online learning attracted thousands of new students that charter schools won’t be able to support under the current funding plan, Rice said. APLUS+ programs enrolled over 5,000 new students across 31 schools after February 29 and wait-listed another 13,400 for next school year. Rice anticipates that nearly 12,700 more would enroll for 2020-2021 should the state remove its funding cap.

Rice on Tuesday delivered a petition with over 11,000 parent signatories to Gov. Gavin Newsom expressing support for preserving 2019-2020 funding as a baseline for next year but urging the governor to revisit treating this year’s average daily attendance as a cap on next year’s budget.

The Charter Schools Development Center on June 23 urged Californians to oppose the new average daily attendance rule and its “potentially devastating financial and operational consequences.” Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle argued last week that this year’s budget singles out charter schools — and the Black and Latinx students many of them serve, Rice and Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, R-Rocklin noted — for unfair treatment.

Average daily attendance constitutes just one part of that discrimination, lawmakers said. Assemblymen Jay Obernolte, R-Big Bear Lake and Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield noted that the legislation bars non-classroom-based charter schools — which include home study, work study and computer-based programs — from accessing more than $4.5 billion in state and federal coronavirus relief and $100 million in state health and safety funds.

“This trailer bill ... allocates several billion dollars in federal coronavirus relief funds and excludes certain types of California charter schools from those allocations,” Obernolte said. “I’m a firm believer that funding should follow the student regardless of where they choose to go to school — and these particular schools serve some of the most difficult to serve students in California.”

The bills are also bad news, lawmakers said, for many traditional public schools. While most school districts are experiencing declining enrollment, about one-third — over 300 districts in total — are growing, Kenneth Kapphahn from the Legislative Analyst’s Office told state senators last week. Their 2020 budgets won’t reflect that growth.

State Senator Richard Pan, D-Sacramento and Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman, D-Stockton represent some of those districts. While they ultimately supported the legislation, both lawmakers urged their colleagues to revisit school funding after passing the budget. Department of Finance Director Jessica Holmes said last week that the normal legislative process remains an avenue for additional school funding.

But the budget trailer bills do not include language for a midterm or ongoing reevaluation, Holmes said, noting that apportioning money based on anticipated growth could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars, whereas the current “hold harmless” model preserves funding for schools that need it most.

“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.

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