In summary

California has based public school funding on a per pupil policy but a new law changes that and it will harm schools in growing communities.

By Jeff Rice, Special to CalMatters

Jeff Rice is founder/director of the Association of Personalized Learning Schools & Services (APLUS+), jeffrice@jps.net.

Graduating medical students swear to the Hippocratic Oath, an expression of ideal conduct by physicians. The most sacred of all principles is the concept to “First, do no harm.” It is critical that California’s K-12 public education system abide by this same commitment.

There are many things of which to be proud in California’s K-12 system, including talented, dedicated teachers, innovative and modern curriculum, and a commitment to educational success for all students. Yet, the budget overwhelmingly supported by the California Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom undermines these valuable assets.

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Historically, California has based public school funding on a per pupil policy known as “average daily attendance,” or ADA. In the simplest terms, the money follows the students.

The new law changes that by apportioning funding for the upcoming school year based on every school’s average daily attendance as of Feb. 29, 2020. This means the funding is set in stone, regardless of whether the student(s) remains at that school, or whether total enrollment at the school declines or increases. Worse, the formula is based on retrospective enrollment rather than on ongoing attendance.

One legislative champion claimed that the new policy ensures that schools are “held harmless” as it gives a base protection for schools that lose students during the COVID-19 pandemic. The truth is that many thousands of children and hundreds of schools will be harmed. The winners are schools with declining enrollment which will receive more funding at the expense of all others. Those that will be harmed are schools in growing communities and those that adjusted seamlessly amidst the many challenges of the COVID-19 crisis.

The reality is freezing funding creates a deficit of resources and undermines the heroic work many schools are doing to address the needs of the community in these unprecedented times, particularly those whose enrollment is increasing due to COVID concerns. This funding policy would devastate schools with more flexible and adaptable alternative models and those that are enrolling significant numbers of new students.

If funding no longer follows the student but stays with their school of record from the 2019-20 school year, school choice will be severely compromised and undermined. For parents who seek to enroll their child in a different school, the money for educational services for that child would remain behind. This creates a perverse disincentive for parents to seek options that may better serve their children. In addition, they will be paying for educational services through taxes, but their child’s education will be underfunded.

It is an unprecedented time for lawmakers, and the Legislature is juggling multiple policy challenges that require tough decisions. But that is not a justification for poor decisions. The Legislature needs to undo this mistake by making adjustments to the average daily attendance funding structure before they adjourn for the year in August.

There is some encouraging language in Newsom’s signing message on the new law: “While maintaining school funding at current levels allows for stability in the public education system, it does not take into account schools that had planned expansions. By not funding those expansions, families enrolled in those schools may be displaced, with impacts exacerbated by the uncertainties caused by COVID-19. I urge members of the Legislature to pursue targeted solutions to these potential disruptions, and will work with you in the coming weeks to enact them.”

Time is running out. The Legislature only has a few weeks to find the will and the way to appropriately fund growing schools that are serving more students. All of California schools should be funded based on ongoing adjusted average daily attendance. This is the only way to “do no harm” to California’s most precious resource: its children.

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