California’s public school students recently showed historic declines in standardized test scores due in part to school closures and other COVID-19 pandemic-related learning disruptions. Amidst a growing state budget device, state legislators and local school leaders need to help students get back on track with smart policymaking.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recently-released budget projects a $22.5 billion deficit, which means school districts, especially those experiencing dramatic student enrollment declines like the Los Angeles Unified School District, will likely need to rightsize operations. School districts should be finding cost savings in areas such as reductions to the currently very generous post-employment health care and dental benefits for retirees, which are controlled at the district level.
California policymakers should also allocate any remaining federal funding for pandemic relief to tutoring services and programs that allow local school leaders the most discretion over how to use the money to help students. As of Sept. 30, 2022, California schools had spent just over 43 percent of the $21.5 billion federal stimulus funds allocated to the state’s school districts and charter schools during the pandemic. School districts need to ensure they don’t create new costs that outlast federal funding set to dry up. Schools must be shrewd about whether or not to add new staff. Many school districts aren’t in a financial position to make new hires due to their declining student populations.
Los Angeles Unified and Oakland Unified School District have heavily invested in tutoring, universal summer school, and small-group literacy programs since the spring of 2020. These programs may help explain why each school district gained ground in some reading metrics and experienced less significant overall National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) score declines than many other urban school districts across the country. And because different student populations have vastly different learning needs, the more discretion local leaders have on how to use these resources, the better.
At the state level, policymakers should resist the urge to funnel education dollars through specific grants and earmarks. These programs make it difficult for school leaders to prioritize the programs they see helping their students when budget cuts are necessary.
Finally, California must consider ways to provide families with more education choices. Improving the state’s public school open enrollment programs is one way to do so. Ensuring that all public schools are participating in within-district and cross-district open enrollment would allow students to enroll at public schools that better fit their academic and social needs.
A 2021 study conducted by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office gave the state’s biggest open enrollment option, the District of Choice program, good marks. Students using the program often enrolled in higher-performing school districts, and districts that lost students to the program showed increased community engagement in an effort to win families back. By consolidating and expanding California’s open enrollment offerings, policymakers would empower more families to find education options that better fit their children’s needs. Unfortunately, a recent Reason Foundation study of K-12 open enrollment policies found California’s open enrollment programs fall short in every key benchmark, so much work is needed.
With the state facing a significant budget deficit, federal COVID funding to schools set to dry up in 2024, and the need to help students make up for learning losses suffered during the pandemic, California’s schools and policymakers have their work cut out for them in 2023. But practical solutions like improving open enrollment policies and rightsizing schools can start to put the state on the right path to providing a higher-quality education to California’s students.
A version of the column previously first appeared in the Orange County Register.