Credit: Jeff Turner/Flickr
The California State House

Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, ended a hearing Monday as he started it, lashing out at school districts for criticizing a bill he and other legislative leaders are proposing that would condition $2 billion in incentive funding on reopening schools, starting April 15.

That bill, Senate Bill 86, remains in limbo, with no vote on it scheduled and behind-the-scenes talks continuing. But tensions, if Ting’s comments are an indication, are rising.

Districts, Ting said, are “tone-deaf” about the desire of parents, teachers and children to return soon to classes, he said. And their criticisms are ironic, he said, since the Legislature gave districts $5 billion last July to spend reopening schools to in-person instruction, yet most squandered the opportunity and the funding, and remain closed nearly a year after the pandemic first shut them down. He singled out San Francisco Unified, where his two daughters continue in distance learning, with no effort to reopen last fall, when infection rates were among the lowest in the state.

“We are not going to make that same mistake. We are not going to be giving money to districts to allow them the choice of whether or not the money is for reopening,” he said.

The $2 billion in incentives was central to a return-to-school plan that Gov. Gavin Newsom introduced in late December, when the Covid surge was near its peak. But he wanted elementary schools to start returning in mid-February, and the deadline passed without the Legislature’s approval. Now legislative leaders have reclaimed the basics of Newsom’s plan, with a new return-to-school date, and introduced it as a bill when they couldn’t cut a deal with the governor over specifics.

School district officials, lobbyists and others, who waited 2½ hours on the phone or off to the side at Monday’s hearing while legislators questioned legislative and Department of Education staff, didn’t have a chance to respond to Ting. The hearing ended abruptly, with Ting in mid-sentence, without public comment.

But based on a letter they sent to legislators on Sunday, school officials would have said the problem is not that they’re looking for free money and then not returning. Districts are already making plans to go back before April 15, and the bill could impede that progress, they wrote. “The language could have unintended consequences and slow down current plans to expand reopening.” That is why they concluded “the fastest route to reopening more schools to in-person instruction” is under the current state guidelines without “additional complications of more changing rules and regulations.”

The best approach is “do no harm,” which Ting, clearly miffed, interpreted as do nothing. “They want money without accountability,” he said.

The letter was signed by eight statewide organizations representing school boards, administrators, school business officers, county offices of education and suburban and small school districts, plus dozens of individual school districts.

Derick Lennox, director of Governmental Relations and Legal Affairs at the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, one of the statewide organizations that signed the letter, responding diplomatically, said that a compromise appears doable and the differences over the bill are narrower than might appear by heated remarks.

“The path forward on a school reopening deal will ultimately be a compromise, as the Legislature’s plan is beginning to demonstrate,” he said. “From the perspective of school practitioners, the key factor is whether the plan will truly incentivize more reopenings, or whether it will just add fresh barriers.”

The bill was written as an attempt to help reopen the state’s largest districts, which also have some of the state’s most powerful local teachers unions. Consistent with the position of the California Teachers Association, the unions have taken the position that their teachers must be vaccinated as a precondition for returning to school, and schools should not reopen until Covid infection rates have fallen below 7 positive cases per 100,000 residents in counties where districts are located. That’s the “red tier” under the state’s 4-level system for defining conditions for reopening school campuses.

Six of the state’s largest districts, including Los Angeles, San Diego, Oakland and Fresno, were the first to endorse the bill last week, although most have not reached final agreements with their unions on the return to school.

Newsom has insisted that elementary schools can reopen safely in the highest infection “purple tier” as long as county infection rates fall below 25 positive cases per 100,000 residents. The California Department of Public Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention support that position. Dozens of districts have signed agreements to return in the purple tier.

SB 86 does not prevent schools, including high schools, that have already reopened from staying open in purple, as long as they can show evidence that they’ve been operating safely. And districts that reach deals with their unions before March 15 can operate under whatever terms are agreed to — and get their share of the $2 billion in incentive money.

But to get the money beyond that date, districts without a deal by then would have to comply with strict Covid testing requirements for students and staff that many districts regard as impractical and too expensive. Some legislators were sympathetic with district complaints.

Testing, particularly of young children, said Assemblyman José Medina, D-Riverside, “can create a logistical nightmare for schools.”

Districts would have the option of ignoring the testing requirements, but they’d have to forgo the incentive funding.

Districts also want to clarify that staff vaccinations are not a prerequisite to reopen schools. The bill does not explicitly say that they are. It orders county public health departments to make vaccines available to staff in schools that are open. But the language is ambiguous and employee unions can argue that it’s a mandate.

Ting acknowledged that efforts to revise the bill’s language will continue in the next few days in discussions with the Senate. Newsom has not commented on the bill since a short statement last week criticizing it.

To get more reports like this one, click here to sign up for EdSource’s no-cost daily email on latest developments in education.

Share Article

Comments (7)

Leave a Reply to marco

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * *

Comments Policy

We welcome your comments. All comments are moderated for civility, relevance and other considerations. Click here for EdSource's Comments Policy.

  1. Al Rice 8 months ago8 months ago

    The vote on this bill should be no unless they remove the option to be hybrid next year. If you want to hold schools accountable for reopening, you need to hold them accountable to be full-time in person. Those who wish to stay on distance learning can enroll in an online school. Our public schools should not be allowed more than the next few months to ‘ease’ back in. Ridiculous. Strip the bill of … Read More

    The vote on this bill should be no unless they remove the option to be hybrid next year. If you want to hold schools accountable for reopening, you need to hold them accountable to be full-time in person. Those who wish to stay on distance learning can enroll in an online school.

    Our public schools should not be allowed more than the next few months to ‘ease’ back in. Ridiculous. Strip the bill of any hybrid option or vote no altogether and put something forward that lets our kids back full time ASAP.

  2. Christopher A Rosa 8 months ago8 months ago

    The daily testing of young children will not work. Most private schools are not testing like this. But do temp checks daily. Our school has been open since September. Now teachers you have been off for 1 year and taxpayer paid. Time to go back – we are no longer going to tolerate this nonsense at the expense of our children.

    Replies

    • dainla 8 months ago8 months ago

      A lot of schools have been open. For instance, schools in Washington State in the fall had 84 outbreaks. So, nah, they don’t need to get back to work. Because they are working. Online. Constantly.

    • Tia 8 months ago8 months ago

      Teachers have not been on vacation for a year! We have been working hard everyday teaching our students, planning lessons, having staff meetings, grading , keeping in touch with families, working with small groups online for intervention students, doing report cards, listening to families suffering from Covid or Covid deaths. The list goes on but we plan meaningful lessons for students. No one has been on vacation.

  3. marco 8 months ago8 months ago

    I appreciate that Ting et al are willing to push for a faster timeline, but the thing that's being missed by everyone (except students and parents at the local level) is that most districts are focused on a ridiculously dumbed-down version of hybrid return to school, often with no instructional hours at all. If the Legislature really cares about accountability for money, they need to define return to school as a significant number of hours … Read More

    I appreciate that Ting et al are willing to push for a faster timeline, but the thing that’s being missed by everyone (except students and parents at the local level) is that most districts are focused on a ridiculously dumbed-down version of hybrid return to school, often with no instructional hours at all.

    If the Legislature really cares about accountability for money, they need to define return to school as a significant number of hours of actual in-person instruction for a significant number of students.

  4. Jim 8 months ago8 months ago

    The LCFF gave them money to party with and no accountability. Why should they expect different now?

  5. Angela 8 months ago8 months ago

    It’s sad that everyone is so concerned about opening up for elementary and high schools; they have forgotten about middle schoolers who are struggling with depression and suicidal ideations due to a lack of social interaction.