As Schools and Families Deal With COVID-19, California Needs to Let Education Funding Follow Kids to Their Schools
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As Schools and Families Deal With COVID-19, California Needs to Let Education Funding Follow Kids to Their Schools

California is generously funding schools that lost students, while short-changing schools that are better serving families during the coronavirus pandemic.

California’s school finance reforms have been lauded across the country in recent years, but state legislators now seem to be putting politics ahead of kids by deciding to fund schools this fall based on last year’s attendance figures. And while it’s unlikely they’ll reverse course, there’s still hope to help those students.

California’s Local Control Funding Formula is a model school finance system because it allocates dollars based on students’ needs and where they enroll. This means that school districts and public charter schools that attract an influx of students, often because they’re serving families effectively, get additional funding to accommodate that growth when money follows the children to their schools.

However, all that is set to change this coming school year due to two budget trailer bills, Assembly Bill 77 and Senate Bill 98, that reject the state’s successful funding model in favor of holding districts that have lost students “harmless” by funding them based on last year’s enrollment. While this means that schools that lost students this year will be insulated from financial losses, it also means that school districts and charter schools that are serving new students this year won’t receive any funding for them.

To be clear, the coronavirus pandemic and recession have caused unprecedented levels of uncertainty and have left California’s fiscal outlook in rough shape. Many school districts have lost enrollment at a time when they’re incurring additional costs necessitated by the pandemic and it makes sense, then, to provide them with a temporary safety net for enrollment losses.

However, the two budget trailer bills go too far and will do more harm than good to those who matter the most—students. Every dollar that stays within a school district for a student who has left that district is a dollar that doesn’t support that child in their new school, which means kids are shortchanged.

Some schools have excelled in serving students during the pandemic and have seen significant growth as a result. For instance, schools that offer personalized learning programs have enrolled more than 5,000 new students for the coming school year, and another 13,000 are wait-listed. Charter schools will be especially affected. Many of these schools are growing quickly in response to demand and will have to either do without the funding needed to cover expenses or turn families away.

But it isn’t just charter schools. School districts that are adding students, which more than 300 public school districts did last year, won’t receive funding to reflect this growth. Conversely, dysfunctional districts, such as Los Angeles Unified School District, will be ‘held harmless’ despite losing track of thousands of students and underperforming during its shift to online learning.

California is generously funding schools that lost students, while short-changing schools that are better serving families during this trying time. Instead, California should be looking to provide needed emergency funding to school districts with enrollment losses while still allowing most education dollars to follow kids to their schools.

But there may still be some hope for California’s high-achieving schools that are attracting students: federal policymakers are getting pressured to issue another round of stimulus funding, which would likely include billions for K-12 education.

Congress could help fix California’s problem by simply requiring that any stimulus money be allocated by states based on schools’ current student counts.

Generally, federal funding for schooling should be flexible and come with few strings attached. But if it is going to pass more stimulus spending, Congress also has a responsibility to ensure that pandemic stimulus funding actually benefits the students it is intended for.

In this case, it would reward growing districts and charter schools while allowing for local control over school re-openings, which is certainly a preferable alternative to the Trump administration’s proposal of withholding funding from school districts that don’t offer in-person instruction.

Lawmakers in Sacramento should be ensuring education resources go where they’re needed to serve students and schools. If state lawmakers don’t reverse course, California’s policymakers in Washington, DC, should take heed.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

Aaron Garth Smith is the director of education reform at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.

Satya Marar is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation.