California budget deal includes extra funding for students with lowest test scores

June 20, 2018
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In one of the largest new appropriations in the state budget, school districts will receive $300 million in 2018-19 to help improve the performance of students with the lowest standardized test scores. That will equal about $2,000 apiece for the estimated 146,000 students designated for the funding.

The one-time money is aimed at a group of students who had been overlooked under the Local Control Funding Formula, the main source of general purpose funding for school districts. The formula targets additional dollars to English learners and low-income, foster and migrant children.

The Low-Performing Students Block Grant will reach low-performing students who don’t fit under any of those categories, which is about 4 percent of the 3.2 million students tested in California. Students with disabilities will be excluded, since they already get extra money from another source of state funding. School districts will have considerable flexibility with the funding, which they can spend over the next three years.

The funding represents a compromise that Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, worked out with Gov. Jerry Brown and his top administrators in the days leading up the Legislature’s passage last week of the 2018-19 budget. Weber had proposed, in Assembly Bill 2635, adding more ongoing money to the funding formula to target students in the lowest-performing ethnic or racial group. That initially would have been African-American students, based on last year’s scores on the Smarter Balanced tests in math and English language arts. The Assembly passed the bill 76-0 and it was pending in the Senate when it emerged — and was changed — in budget negotiations.

The funding instead will be a one-time appropriation and apply to all students, regardless of race or ethnicity, who score at the lowest of four levels on both math and English language arts tests, or a combination of the lowest level and next-to-lowest level.

This approach averts a potential conflict with Proposition 209 that was raised in an analysis by the California Department of Finance. That 1996 voter initiative prohibits granting “preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.”

About 12,000 of the estimated 146,000 students covered by the new funding will be African-Americans, Weber said. Weber may still pursue her bill, which would encompass a higher number of African-American children, in the future. A professor emeritus of Africana studies at San Diego State University and former board member of the San Diego Unified School District, Weber said the Legislature needs to address the causes of the persistent underperformance of African-American children as a group, whether due to low expectations or racism in the education system. Only 31 percent of black students meet grade level standards in English language arts, compared with the state average of 49 percent; 19 percent meet grade-level standards in math — half of the state average. The disparity, known as the achievement gap, is also wide between non-low-income African-American students and non-low-income whites and Asians.

“I would welcome a lawsuit over meeting the needs of black kids. Prop. 209 is a straw man argument,” she said.

For now, she said she is satisfied there is money for low-achieving students who haven’t been getting extra funding — a position she said she advocated when the Local Control Funding Formula was first debated.

Under the language of the budget bill, districts must spend the money to help close achievement gaps for low-income children and others who draw money under the funding formula. But otherwise districts will have flexibility. For a small district with few students, there might be individualized help, like tutoring. A district with a larger concentration of students might use the funding for an early grades math initiative or for a behavior intervention program in middle school.

“We don’t want to take authority away from schools whether to focus on individuals or a larger problem,” Weber said.

What Weber will get in return will be a tighter accounting for how the money is spent. In exchange for the new money, districts must justify their expenditures in a plan submitted to the state superintendent of public instruction next year and then report back on the results by 2021. The California Department of Education will then report to the Legislature on effective uses of the money.

Under the Local Control Funding Formula, districts choose how to spend money on low-performing areas, whether test scores, suspension rates or gaps in college readiness, discuss the ideas and improvement goals in community meetings and commit to them in a Local Control and Accountability Plan — a planning document that is updated annually.

“We need an honest conversation about local control and whether it is working,” Weber said. “We gave districts authority but did not set clear expectations.”

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