California schools face funding crunch as student population shrinks

California Governor Gavin Newsom’s state budget proposal addresses the impact of declining student enrollment on school funding. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Governor Gavin Newsom has planned another record year of funding for schools during its budget presentation Monday but warned that some districts could be in financial difficulty as student enrollments continue to decline.

Newsom’s budget proposal indicated a declining state population driven by falling birth rates that “eroded” K-12 enrollment projections, and proposed tweaking California’s decades-old education funding formula to “Minimize the impact” of fewer students in schools, with funding tied to attendance.

Newsom’s budget proposes to expand the policy to allow districts to base funding on attendance for the current year, the previous year, or the average of the previous three years, whichever is greater. . The proposal gives school districts “more leeway to prepare for truly shocking declines,” said Keely Martin Bosler, director of Newsom’s finance department.

Average daily attendance for the state’s 6 million and over K-12 students has declined by 271,000 students since 2014. Funding for schools in California is based on student enrollment and reduced by average daily attendance records, an attempt to hold schools accountable for chronic absenteeism.

The drop in enrollment has been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic as fewer families have moved to California and campus closures “have prompted parents to consider alternatives to their neighborhood public school,” according to budget documents posted by Newsom on Monday.

“Some school districts over the next several years will be faced with difficult choices to stay fiscally solvent,” the budget said.

Last week, Senator Anthony Portantino (D – La Cañada Flintridge) introduced legislation that takes a bolder approach to the registration problem. The new bill proposes that education funding be tied to total annual student enrollment rather than how often students actually attend classes. The move could bring in an additional $ 3 billion in annual public funding for schools, according to Portantino.

Portantino said in a statement on Monday that he was encouraged by Newsom’s proposal and that “the governor’s instinct is right”, but that he will continue to argue that “now is the perfect time to adopt structural reforms needed to better fund our schools and to create the stability educators need to better serve our children.

Newsom has not commented on Portantino’s legislation.

At San Bernardino City Unified, enrollment fell by more than 2,000 students last year, equivalent to eight years of annual population decline in the district.

The district, which is home to more than 50,000 students, is already assessing where to make potential cuts, the associate superintendent said. Harold Sullins.

“With this cliff face looming and the acceleration of the issues COVID has presented, I am grateful that we are having this conversation. But that’s not a new problem for school districts, and we just wish it didn’t take a pandemic to get here, ”Sullins said. “Unfortunately, we should have gotten to this place much sooner. “

California Assn. of School Business Officials said it supports “any statutory change that recognizes that enrollment realities are variable and unique” and “any potential to ease financial pressures around those terms.”

School leaders who have long lamented average daily attendance, saying it is a volatile policy that makes budgeting more difficult, welcome a change but say Newsom and Portantino’s plans do not go far enough.

Newsom’s projected $ 119 billion education funding and record per-student spending won’t necessarily save districts facing systemic deficits and large enrollment declines, as state law dictates how money can be spent.

Portantino’s proposal would require that half of any new funding provided be spent on chronic absenteeism, thus limiting how the money can be spent.

Kevin Gordon, an education lobbyist in Sacramento who represents state superintendents, said the conversation about funding schools was “long overdue,” but it is a difficult task. the shift to an enrollment-based policy will result in significant ongoing costs to the state.

“The policy has never made sense, except that it emphasizes that we pay attention to a child being in the classroom every day, and I always thought that could be accomplished by other means, ”Gordon said. “From a public policy perspective, it makes sense to move to a registration-based system, but it’s certainly more complicated than it looks.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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