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California lawmaker wants to nix attendance-based funding scheme for schools

Backers of the switch to enrollment-based funding say schools serving low-income families will be the biggest winners.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Seeking to align California with most of the country, a key lawmaker on Monday unveiled legislation that would scrap the state’s attendance-based education funding system for one centered on enrollment.  

On the first day of the 2022 legislative year, state Senator Anthony Portantino proposed a major reframing of how the nation’s most populous state funds its over 1,000 K-12 school districts. The Los Angeles Democrat who chairs the state Senate Appropriations Committee says the decades-old attendance formula disproportionately impacts districts beset by high truancy rates.

Pointing to the state’s rosy finances, Portantino wants to create a multibillion-dollar supplemental pool that will help districts in places like Los Angeles and the Central Valley that struggle with poor attendance hire more teachers and offer better curriculum.

“With a $31 billion projected surplus, this is the time to look at structural reform in how we fund education,” Portantino said during a virtual press conference. “This is the time for K-12 to be front and center in the budget conversation going forward.”

For over five decades, California has tied education dollars directly to average daily attendance — one of only six states that does not consider total student enrollment. Critics say the attendance formula leads to unfair levels of financial support and does little to prevent absenteeism as originally intended.  

Portantino hopes to strike while the state’s coffers are full and implement the funding change before the 2022-2023 budget is finalized in June.

“California has long been a leader but here we are with Idaho, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas,” Portantino said.   

While California schools received record-levels of funding in the current budget and figure to see another boost in the next spending bill, Portantino says the money hasn’t necessarily been spread equally. By shifting to an enrollment scheme by the 2023-2024 school year, he claims Senate Bill 830 could create up to $3 billion in new K-12 funding.

Proponents say the supplemental funding will help administrators plan for the school year, noting districts create budgets based on individual enrollment and not previous attendance levels. For example, a school district with 90% daily attendance in the previous year must still prep for the possibility of increased or even full-attendance rates in the next.  

California currently sets individual districts’ standard funding on enrollment minus the daily average of absent students. To contend with increased truancy rates and sputtering enrollment during the pandemic, California the last two years has based funding on pre-Covid-19 data.

According to state data, over 755,000 K-12 students were chronically absent during the 2018-2019 school year. The state classifies students as chronically absent if they miss over 10% of instructional days during the enrollment period.

Enrollment fell overall statewide including at LA Unified School District, which has lost over 27,000 students since the 2020-2021 school year. District administrators say SB 830 will provide new funding and enable the state’s largest K-12 district to better confront truancy.  

Kelly Gonez, president of the LAUSD board of education, says just getting to school can be hard for many students due to pandemic-related trauma and financial stress.

“Senator Portantino’s proposed legislation would provide a more equitable funding mechanism so that school districts like mine can really address the root causes of chronic absenteeism,” Gonez said. “By addressing those root causes we will see more students in the classroom everyday learning.”

Under SB 830, districts eligible for the supplemental funding would be required to spend at least half of the new money on truancy prevention programs. In addition, Portantino says no district would receive less funding per student than it currently gets.     

The California School Employees Association is sponsoring the proposal, saying it will help districts track down absent students and subsequently improve attendance. Association president Matthew Dishman called the potential shift to an enrollment formula well overdue.

“The truth is attendance-based funding punishes students in schools that most need the state’s financial support,” Dishman said.

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