Photo courtesy of Voices College-Bound Language Academies
Students at the Voices Morgan Hill charter school gather for a morning exercise emphasizing the importance of teamwork.

Four growing charter school organizations are suing Gov. Gavin Newsom, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and the California Department of Education, charging that the state’s formula for funding K-12 schools during the pandemic will illegally deny payments for additional students in their schools.

Their schools are being underfunded by millions of dollars and their students’ constitutional rights are being violated, the lawsuit claims.

The schools and parents of their prospective parents called for the courts to immediately force the state to reimburse the schools for newly enrolled students. If successful, the lawsuit, filed Monday in Superior Court in Sacramento, would benefit traditional school districts that also are not being reimbursed in the coming school year for growth in enrollment.

“The Legislature should immediately fix this, by funding public school students,” Jerry Simmons, attorney for the plaintiffs, said at a press conference Tuesday. “If it does not, we are confident that the courts will.”

That should not be necessary, H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the California Department of Finance, wrote in an email Tuesday. It has been the “intent of the Administration” that the Legislature will address the issue in August, he wrote.

Until the coronavirus pandemic suddenly forced schools to close in March, the state had been funding schools based on students’ average daily attendance. Recognizing that many schools wouldn’t able to keep in regular touch with students in the rough transition to remote learning, Newsom by executive order guaranteed that charter schools and school districts would be reimbursed for the remaining months of school based on their pre-pandemic attendance rates.

Looking ahead to fall with predictions that surges in the pandemic could cause disruptive switches between distance learning and in-person instruction, the Legislature and Newsom agreed to protect schools from gyrations in attendance. In the new state budget, they extended the 2019-20 attendance rates another year, to 2020-21.

The new funding system will shield districts with declining enrollment from financial loss but will hurt growing districts and charter schools — especially those bringing the lawsuit. Several had approval to open new schools and enroll large numbers of students in the fall, with the expectation of full funding.

Charters caught by surprise

The Legislature’s decision to base K-12 funding on pre-pandemic enrollment, announced days before passage of the budget in mid-June, blindsided them, Simmons said, and put them in an untenable position. Those with waiting lists conducted lotteries and registrations last spring and are now legally bound to serve students that the state will not pay for.

“Not funding public school students because their families have made an educational decision in their children’s best interest is inequitable and unconscionable,” said Juan Carlos Villasenor, founding principal of one of four Voices College-Bound Language Academies, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Voices plans to open a new school in Stockton this fall and expand the number of grades in its Bay Area schools. Accommodating uncompensated new students will force cuts on the remaining schools, with layoffs of student service managers, special education paraprofessionals and an instructional coach at each school.

“The schools will have to spread money for existing kids. Hundreds of thousand of kids will be impacted by absorbing cuts and reductions,” Simmons said.

The other plaintiffs are the Fortune School, a TK-12 network of nine schools in Sacramento and San Bernardino, serving primarily Black students; John Adams Academy, “a TK-12 Classical leadership” network with campuses in Roseville, El Dorado Hills and Lincoln; and Sycamore Creek Community Charter School, a TK-8 charter school in Huntington Beach guided by the principles of Waldorf education.

Leaders from those schools made similar arguments. Sycamore Creek’s executive director, Sarah Bach, said that without tuition revenue for its planned expansion, it would have to fund twice as many students at 50% funding.

Fortune School is opening a new school in south Sacramento targeting Black students who have not been well served, said Fortune’s President and CEO Margaret Fortune. “I opened a network of schools to close the African American achievement gap by preparing kids for college in a different way. We enter into this lawsuit, not lightly. It’s the last thing that you want to do. But we will use every resource within our grasp to protect our children and our students.” The lawsuit, Samaiya Atkinds v. State of California, bears the name of a kindergartner who is enrolled in the new Sacramento school.

Although enrollment statewide has been gradually declining, some districts like Elk Grove, near Sacramento, have been growing and would also be adversely affected. Newsom acknowledged the unsolved problem but said maintaining school funding at current levels would allow for “stability” in a June 29 budget message.

“I urge members of the Legislature to pursue targeted solutions to these potential disruptions and will work with you in coming weeks to enact them,” he wrote.

The Legislature’s challenge is that any solution will likely require some double funding: paying tuition to charter schools for their new students and paying the districts where some of the students came from. Districts already facing added costs of the pandemic based their budgets on the assumption they’d get what they received last year.

Simmons and legislative staff haven’t estimated the cost of a fix, but it would be at least several hundred million dollars. Palmer indicated that the compromise would involve paying districts and charter schools for “planned growth.” ­That implies documentable pre-pandemic approvals for expansion and actions like hiring staff, enrolling students and finishing buildings — but not parents’ decisions to switch schools since the start of the pandemic.

Accurately documenting attendance might be hard to do anyway. Although school districts will be required to take daily attendance, including check-ins during distance learning, they will not be required this year to report the data to the state.

Simmons said the lawsuit should serve as a reminder not to delay. “The facts of this case are incredibly compelling. The state has an obligation to fund what it is obligated to fund, and students have a constitutional right” to an equal opportunity for an education, he said.

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  1. Renee 1 day ago1 day ago

    Oh please, you really believe they care that much about the education of those children when so many charter school's are embezzling money? The fact is, they are losing out on their personal money grab. Every charter school my children have attended take months after the school year starts to provide services and curriculum. From the outside, it looks like a bad thing, but in reality, tax dollars are just up for grabs by those … Read More

    Oh please, you really believe they care that much about the education of those children when so many charter school’s are embezzling money? The fact is, they are losing out on their personal money grab. Every charter school my children have attended take months after the school year starts to provide services and curriculum. From the outside, it looks like a bad thing, but in reality, tax dollars are just up for grabs by those smart enough to milk the system (taxpayers) under the guise of “helping those in need”.

  2. Jackie Umstead 1 day ago1 day ago

    I have a special needs high school student in a charter school that is not allowed funds for in-person classes. He needs that in-person help, online classes do not work for him. I think it is disgraceful that I can only use funds for online classes that are of no use to him!

  3. JL 1 month ago1 month ago

    This is a great article. Hopefully, all schools will receive the funding they need.

  4. Waltdietsch 3 months ago3 months ago

    Great info!

  5. Frank Valencia 3 months ago3 months ago

    The issue here became that all districts and charter schools had begun their new enrollments. Many schools had to go back to those parents whose children had already been accepted and told never mind. Most schools begin accepting new enrollments Jan thru April. The state cannot come out in May or June and break this news.

  6. Todd Maddison 3 months ago3 months ago

    "Accurately documenting attendance might be hard to do anyway. Although school districts will be required to take daily attendance, including check-ins during distance learning, they will not be required this year to report the data to the state." Don't get that. They have all the systems they need, right now, to report ADA to the state. They've been doing it for years. Nothing has changed in that. Why would they not simply use that … Read More

    “Accurately documenting attendance might be hard to do anyway. Although school districts will be required to take daily attendance, including check-ins during distance learning, they will not be required this year to report the data to the state.”

    Don’t get that. They have all the systems they need, right now, to report ADA to the state. They’ve been doing it for years. Nothing has changed in that.

    Why would they not simply use that same system to do the same thing it’s always done?

    Sounds like excuses to not report to the state, to me….

  7. tomm 3 months ago3 months ago

    Kudos to the Charter Schools to force the issue. I know of Voices from one of their San Jose schools they serve underprivileged, low income kids of color. I'll be sending them some money to help. There is wide agreement now that the public school response to on-line learning was underwhelming last Sprig. Where we live, East Bay of SF, we saw the private schools work much harder to keep the kids in … Read More

    Kudos to the Charter Schools to force the issue. I know of Voices from one of their San Jose schools they serve underprivileged, low income kids of color. I’ll be sending them some money to help.

    There is wide agreement now that the public school response to on-line learning was underwhelming last Sprig. Where we live, East Bay of SF, we saw the private schools work much harder to keep the kids in front of teachers virtually while the public school teachers were out shopping or kicking back at the lake. Because of this, many families have lost confidence in the public school system and will be homeschooling or trying to get their kids into private schools. The public school enrollment can be projected to go down because of this.

    So now we find out that the state government will pay public schools for the same enrollment as last school year even if the kids won’t even be there? It’s no wonder that this state is such a fiscal mess! Unbelievable.

  8. Giselle S Galper 3 months ago3 months ago

    Thank you. Charter schools are public schools and deserve funding.

  9. J M 3 months ago3 months ago

    At least three of the charter organizations mentioned in the article received ppp loans in the amount of $2-$5 Million. Not sure why the article fails to mention this.

    Replies

    • Chris Bertelli 3 months ago3 months ago

      Charter schools are frequently forced to secure loans for costs that district-run public schools don’t have to deal with, such as rent/purchase of facilities or to bridge gaps in funding due to substantial growth. Being able to get a loan doesn’t relieve the state of its constitutional obligation to provide public school students with an adequate education. Refusing to fund a student’s public education because of the public school they choose is blatantly unconstitutional.

    • R 3 months ago3 months ago

      That is charter school for you. They get to pick and choose.

    • Todd Maddison 3 months ago3 months ago

      Perhaps we should look at the “deferrals” the public system is set to receive under the latest funding bill, which is just a loan guarantee under a different name?

    • Frank Valencia 3 months ago3 months ago

      Yes those schools got loans but those loans are to survive year one. State funding is needed for year two and on. With the new law, they would have to get another loan.