California only pays for schools when kids go to class. New bill would change that formula

A Democratic lawmaker wants to use part of the state’s projected $31 billion budget surplus to increase funding for schools and change how California pays for public education. A new bill by Sen. Anthony Portantino would alter schools’ funding formula, shifting from one that’s based on average daily attendance to one based on total enrollment. California for decades has based its school funding on student attendance, which Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge, and supporters say unfairly punishes low-income districts that have higher rates of absenteeism and truancy.

California is one of only six states that bases funding on attendance, along with Idaho, Kentucky, Mississippi Missouri, and Texas. “If a school district enrolls 100 students, but their attendance rate is 95%., the school district must prepare as if 100 students will attend class, but only receives funding for 95,” Portantino said. “This bill will remedy that inequity.”

Senate Bill 830 would take advantage of the state’s expected budget surplus by making an additional $3 billion available to school districts, Portantino said. Certain school districts will benefit more than others based on the difference between their attendance and enrollment rates, he said. But the senator emphasized that the bill would lead to increased funding “across the board.” No district would lose funding under the legislation. “We want to make sure that there’s only winners with this new paradigm, there’s not going to be any losers,” Portantino said. The bill would also require that schools use 50% of the additional funds to address absenteeism. If passed, it would go into affect for the 2023-2024 school year. The California School Employees Association, a labor union representing more than 230,000 public employees, is co-sponsoring the bill. Association President Shane Dishman said enrollment-based funding is more helpful than attendance-based funding in addressing absenteeism.

“The truth is, attendance-based funding punishes students in schools that most need the state’s financial support,” he said. During the 2018-2019 school year, 12.1% of California’s 6 million students were chronically absent, according to state data. African American students experienced the highest rate of absenteeism, 22.5%, among their peers. Kelly Gonez, board president of the Los Angeles Unified School District, said an enrollment-based funding formula would benefit students in Los Angeles, who suffer a disproportionately higher rate of chronic absenteeism than other districts. “School districts like LA Unified, with high numbers of students in historically underserved communities, face higher levels of chronic absenteeism, and that absenteeism means that school districts have less funding just when their students need more support and more resources,” Gonez said. Additional funding will help districts like LAUSD get to the “root causes” of chronic absenteeism, Gonez said. The district currently provides case management and conduct home visits, and once a year holds a “student recovery day” where volunteers throughout the district reach out to chronically absent students.

Through those efforts, LAUSD was able to reach an attendance rate of about 95% prior to the pandemic. But the coronavirus has knocked that number down, closer to 91%, Gonez said. “That drop is a loss of dollars right when our students need us and need those resources the most,” she said. “So I’m really hopeful that the Legislature will support SB 830 to provide supplemental funding for school districts serving high-need populations.”

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