The Mendocino Beacon

School funding proposal aims to achieve equity, but does it go far enough?

- By Joe Hong

Black students’ standardiz­ed test scores and graduation rates have long trailed those of their white and Asian peers. For decades, educators and legislator­s have tried to close that achievemen­t gap, and a school funding proposal in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new budget illustrate­s just how difficult it is to do .

The idea for the proposed funding began as a bill authored last year by Assemblyme­mber Akilah Weber, a Democrat from La Mesa, that would have provided more money for Black K-12 students. The bill made it through both the Assembly and Senate with unanimous support. While Newsom never vetoed the bill, he ultimately refused to sign it. Weber agreed to drop the bill when the governor promised to include the funding in his proposed budget for the next fiscal year.

But after Newsom released his budget earlier this month, some advocates who supported Weber’s bill say the governor’s proposal falls short. Driven by concerns the bill would violate state and federal laws banning preferenti­al treatment of specific racial or ethnic groups, the governor’s office directed the funding to highpovert­y schools rather than Black students specifical­ly.

Some advocates say the proposed school funding in the budget waters down the intent of the bill and will perpetuate the achievemen­t gap for Black students.

According to a CalMatters analysis, less than 26% of Black students in California attend a school that would qualify for the $300 million proposed in Newsom’s budget.

Margaret Fortune is president and CEO of the charter school organizati­on Fortune School of Education and was one of the lead sponsors of the bill. She said the proposal does not reflect the intentions of Weber’s bill.

“It sounds good, but it doesn’t actually get to the students who need the help,” she said. “This is an apple, and what we wanted was an orange.”

But the bill wasn’t just about race. Weber’s AB 2774 would have given additional funding to school districts and charter schools for the student group with the lowest standardiz­ed test scores statewide. In 2022, that group was Black students. Statewide, 30% of Black students met or exceeded standards in English language arts and 16% met or exceeded standards in math in the 2021-22 school year. For white students, those percentage­s were 61% for English language arts and 48% for math.

Test scores dropped slightly for all students during the pandemic, and the achievemen­t gap persisted. In the spring of 2019, the last year of standardiz­ed testing before the pandemic shutdown, 33% of Black students met or exceeded English language arts standards and 21% met or exceeded math standards. Among white students, 66% and 54%, respective­ly, met or exceeded standards.

Supporters of Weber’s bill said it would have helped Black students — as the lowest-performing group on state standardiz­ed test scores — improve academical­ly. At the same time, the legislatio­n would have used test scores to ensure the funding was producing results. Once Black students’ scores were no longer the lowest, the next group with the lowest test scores would qualify for the additional funding.

“If after one or two years those students were progressin­g, it could be any other student group that could be considered,” said Christina Laster, an educationa­l advisor for Al Sharpton’s National Action Network and a co-sponsor of the bill.

Some experts say that while elected officials and policymake­rs are quick to identify the racial achievemen­t gaps, they lack the political will to target Black students with extra resources.

“I think we’re really afraid to have hard conversati­ons and subsequent legislatio­n around race and how we achieve racial justice in education,” said Tyrone Howard, an education professor at UCLA. “I don’t think you can take 245 years of slavery and Jim Crow and a legacy of separate and unequal education and expect this gap to not exist.”

Weber’s bill isn’t a new idea. Her mother, former Assemblyme­mber and current Secretary of State Shirley Weber, authored nearly identical bills in 2018, 2019 and 2020. None of them made it out of the state Assembly. In 2018, Newsom made a similar deal with Shirley Weber by including $300 million in one-time funding for the state’s lowest-performing students. That funding applied to all students regardless of race to avoid a potential legal conflict.

But some experts and advocates say race-blind solutions won’t close the achievemen­t gap for Black students.

“When the lowest-performing groups do better, that benefits students across the state,” Howard said. “I think the governor got it wrong here.”

Tweaking the Local Control Funding Formula

California funds its K-12 public schools through the Local Control Funding Formula, a system enacted in 2013. The formula gives more money to districts serving higher percentage­s of high-needs students — English learners, foster children and students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals.

The intent is equity over equality: more resources for students who need them most. And while research shows that the Local Control Funding Formula has helped close gaps in graduation rates, college readiness and test scores, some advocates and legislator­s have said the state needs to increase accountabi­lity over how districts spend the money.

In 2015, the ACLU sued the Los Angeles Unified School District for failing to spend the money generated by English learners, foster children and low-income students on services for those groups. In 2021, the California Department of Education found that three school districts in San Bernardino County misused funds for high-needs students.

Weber’s bill would have added the subgroup with the lowest standardiz­ed test scores to the three student groups specified in the funding formula. Subgroups of students, like students with disabiliti­es, that already qualify districts for additional state and federal funding would not qualify. That left racial and ethnic groups as the remaining categories.

This year, the bill would have allocated $400 million to districts and charter schools for their Black students.

The ‘equity multiplier’

In Newsom’s proposed budget, Weber’s bill became the “equity multiplier.” The proposal allocates $300 million for elementary and middle schools where at least 90% of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. For high schools, that percentage is 85%.

Unlike funding formula money that goes to districts, the dollars from the equity multiplier will go directly to schools and the rules will be stricter about where the money can be spent.

Brooks Allen, an education policy advisor for Newsom and the executive director of the State Board of Education, said Weber’s bill was a “launching pad.” He pointed out Weber’s bill didn’t include any requiremen­ts for districts on spending the money. He said Newsom’s proposal will have more accountabi­lity measures to make sure schools spend the money on the students with the highest needs. Newsom and his advisors are still working on those details.

Weber’s offices provided little comment about Newsom’s proposal. When asked if Weber was disappoint­ed by it, her chief-of-staff, Tiffany Ryan, wrote in an email only that the “equity multiplier” is a “step in the right direction.”

It’s unclear how the state will allocate the $300 million to the qualifying schools. Those details will be released in the education trailer bill that comes out later this year, state officials said. The trailer bill will describe the specific education programs that will receive money through the state budget.*

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