The 2020-21 state budget signed back in June by Governor Newsom glaringly failed to fund growing regular public schools and public charter schools. A purported “fix” to this problem, pushed by the governor and Democrat legislators, turns out to be just more Sacramento smoke and mirrors.
The budget for the new fiscal year froze funding for schools at their 2019-20 level, preventing additional state funding for growing schools with increased numbers of students in the fall. This provision contradicted court decisions and state-education-funding reforms that had required funding to follow children to the regular public or public charter schools they planned to attend in the new school year.
In response, a lawsuit filed by several charter schools charged that if “funding did not adjust each year to reflect the number of students actually enrolled in each public school,” then “public schools with increasing enrollment would have fewer resources to serve more students.”
In the face of this lawsuit, Democrats put together a “fix” to address the legitimate complaint that the state would not fund every child.
SB 820, on first glance, appears to fund increased numbers of students at growing schools. The state will fund higher enrollment based on either the projected number of students in schools’ own 2020-21 budgets or on their enrollment figures as of October 1st. However, the bill then stipulates that funding will be based on whichever figure is lower.
To understand this dishonest sleight of hand, think about a charter school that projects 400 new students in its 2020-21 budget. However, on October 1st, the school actually has 500 new students. According to SB 820, the state will not pay for the added 100 students as of October 1st because the projected number of students in the school’s budget was the lower amount vis-a-vis the actual number of students that eventually enrolled.
Irvine Unified School District Superintendent Terry Walker observed, “if actual enrollment exceeds budgeted enrollment, the district will have to absorb these costs with no additional revenue.”
John Fensterwald, the respected longtime reporter for EdSource, also noted, “Charter schools that recruit students over the summer while budgeting conservatively for the upcoming year also may be adversely affected.”
Indeed, John Adams Academy, one of the charters that filed the lawsuit, makes that exact argument.
Dr. Dean Forman, the founder of John Adams, has pointed out that his school and others like it “use conservative budget estimates in an effort to be good stewards of our public tax dollars, meaning students would still be defunded under the government’s attempts to ‘clean up’ their earlier mistake.”
“This is unacceptable,” says Forman. “Education funding must follow the student. Period.”
In addition to using a financial sleight of hand to continue to defund children at growing schools, lawmakers explicitly defunded new students at online charter schools, which serve their students through distance-learning tools. According to the bill, such schools will get no new state dollars for increased enrollment.
Jeff Rice, the founder and director of the Association of Personalized Learning Schools and Services, notes, “At a time when students, parents, teachers, and school administrators are overwhelmed with their schools converting to distance learning, their proposal excludes growth funding for the one segment of public schools that have a proven track record of successfully providing quality education through both distance learning and alternative settings.”
The bottom line is, as Senator Mike Morrell (R-Rancho Cucamonga) – who waged an unsuccessful fight in the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee to fund non-classroom-based charter schools – said, “The money should follow students regardless of where they go to school.”
“Every student deserves a chance to succeed,” said Morrell, and “California should not be penalizing families for opting to enroll their children in academic settings that best meet their needs, especially during this time.”
Morrell is absolutely right. The fact that California refuses to do so demonstrates that education special interests, like the teacher unions that oppose charter schools, continue to call the shots in the State Capitol, to the detriment of the state’s children.
Lance Izumi is senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute. He is the author of the 2019 book Choosing Diversity: How Charter Schools Promote Diverse Learning Models and Meet the Diverse Needs of Parents and Children.