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Newsom’s big bet on fixing California’s poorest schools and narrowing achievement gaps

Credit: Green Dot Public Schools

An English language arts class at Ánimo Jefferson Charter Middle School in Los Angeles.

By directing funding to the state’s poorest schools and targeting racial disparities statewide, Gov. Gavin Newsom is proposing the biggest changes in a decade to the state system of funding and governing schools.

His plan would be an implicit acknowledgment that school districts’ efforts under the Local Control Funding Formula have not narrowed achievement gaps. Nor have districts sufficiently steered supplemental money from the formula to schools with the greatest needs.

His proposal, announced last month, grew out of a push by Black legislators to direct new money specifically toward helping Black students raise achievement. Since the 1996 voter initiative Proposition 209 bans affirmative action in public schools, Newsom is proposing a different approach.

A small proportion of Black students would benefit from attending the state’s poorest schools that would receive $300 million in new ongoing funding — a strategy Newsom is calling an “equity multiplier.” 

But the legislation would do something else that officials say would benefit nearly all Black students: It would direct school districts to use the yearly state funding to help all student groups improve academic achievement. 

The assumption behind the legislation is that supports and extra assistance will address underachievement. Black students have long scored lowest among students grouped by race and ethnicity.

“We cannot afford to hesitate in our ongoing efforts to deliver on the promise of equitable educational opportunity that is the heart of the Local Control Funding Formula,” said Brooks Allen, executive director of the State Board of Education and an education adviser to Newsom. “The needs of our children are as urgent as ever, and the governor’s budget proposals represent the next step in the evolution of the LCFF.”

Indeed, this next step would be more focused but is based on the same measures that districts have always used. Using statewide metrics on the California School Dashboard — test scores, chronic absences and graduation rates among them — districts already set districtwide goals for underperforming student groups. Under local control, they set their own priorities and how much to spend. They must consult with parents about their strategies and write the commitments into a strategic plan called the Local Control and Accountability Plan, an often unwieldy, parent-unfriendly document.

An example might be to set a goal of cutting an 18% rate of chronic absences in district middle schools in half within three years. Actions could include funding home visits, training all teachers in strategies for encouraging higher attendance and adding a half-time social worker in each school at an annual cost of $750,000.

Under Newsom’s plan, the LCAP process would apply to every low-performing student group in every school. Schools would have to say how parents had a voice in setting measurable goals and actions with needed funding. For the first time, they would also have to examine staffing issues, including disparities in credentialed and fully qualified teachers and training needs. Schools that can’t show progress annually would be required to change strategies in their LCAPs. 

Districts would get help in tackling these challenges from county offices of education and a small state agency, the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, which are charged with helping schools improve and monitor their efforts.

Several county offices would be designated “equity leads” and give priority for help and expertise to the high-poverty schools receiving the $300 million. 

So far, representatives for school boards, district administrators and county offices have been silent on the extra demands, including an expansion of the LCAP which critics say is already burdensome for districts. Once they take positions, they’ll have several months to negotiate with Newsom’s office and legislative leaders on what should be in the final 2023-24 budget.

“The $300 million is the start of the conversation. The hard work is doing the systems change at the school site level so that you actually drive outcomes in a sustainable way,” said Derick Lennox, senior director of governmental relations and legal affairs with the California County Superintendents.

Heather Hough, executive director of PACE, a California university-based research nonprofit, commended Newsom for increasing funding for schools with the lowest-income students, especially because districts have failed to do so on their own. “The idea of the equity multiplier is a really good idea and very important,” she said.

But she also cautioned that Newsom’s proposed changes must be carefully thought through, especially the idea of adding equity leads to a county-driven support system that already designates leading county offices by geography and expertise.  Simply “layering on top of the current system of support could add confusion and a lack of clarity over who’s responsible at the end of the day to make sure districts have plans that would help kids learn.” 

There has been steady criticism since LCAPs were introduced in 2014 that districts haven’t clearly reported how they have spent state funding given to districts to help student groups like English learners and low-income students. In response to a 2019 report by then-state Auditor Elaine Howle that criticized a lack of spending transparency, Newsom last February eliminated a widely used loophole in the funding formula that districts used to avoid spending money on targeted students. In landmark research in 2021, Julien Lafortune, a senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California, calculated that school districts on average directed only 55 cents of every dollar of extra funding to the schools where high-needs students who generated the money attended. 

Funding targets racial disparities

Newsom announced the initiative in his budget last month and fleshed out the concept in legislation, called the K-12 Omnibus Trailer Bill. The proposal was the outgrowth of talks between his administration and Assemblymember Akilah Weber, D-La Mesa. Last year, she withdrew a bill that would have directed additional money under the funding formula to address the academic needs of Black students, the state’s most underperforming ethnic and racial group.

The governor’s plan would focus extra funding on all low-performing student groups in about 800 out of about 10,000 schools. This bill explicitly calls for addressing disparities among racial groups, with the expectation that districts would use extra funding intended for underperforming students. 

There had been some confusion about that issue, Allen acknowledged, because supplemental funding under LCFF is distributed based on the number of English learners, low-income, foster and homeless students attending a district. Some districts assumed that funding therefore could not be focused on the specific needs of low-performing Black students and other racial and ethnic groups — even if identified by dashboard measures — unless they fit into one of those groups. 

This new law would tell districts their funding is to benefit all student racial and ethnic groups including Black students. “It’s the difference between should, under the existing law, and must,” Allen said. 

The idea that these additional funds cannot be used to address stubborn racial disparities is an “all too widespread misperception,” Weber said in a statement. It is “damaging because it prevents many districts from taking targeted actions to address the demonstrated needs of African American students.”

With that issue clarified, Weber and the Black Legislative Caucus issued statements supporting Newsom’s plan. 

Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based advocacy organization, indicated its support, too. Noting data that show that Black students have made little progress after a decade under the existing funding formula, Executive Director Christopher Nellum, said, “We are of the mind that whatever way we can get dollars to Black students in the schools where they are, we’re happy with.”

Ed Trust-West supported Weber’s AB 2774, but is not wedded to a particular bill or approach. “Now that we’re here, we’re happy with the governor’s approach,” he said.

How $300 million will be divided

Schools with the most low-income students will share in the extra $300 million in ongoing funding, rising yearly with the cost of living. The money would be allocated based on school enrollment. The minimum award for any eligible school would be $50,000. 

Based on details in the trailer bill, EdSource calculated that 806 schools would be eligible for funding. Along with charter and traditional schools, more than a quarter would be juvenile court, continuation and special day schools meeting the needs of students in an alternative setting.

The Newsom administration and the Black Legislative Caucus said that equity multiplier schools would reach nearly 10% of the state’s 299,000 Black students.

But an EdSource analysis shows that the equity multiplier schools would serve only 6.6% of Black students. Latino students would make up 86%, Asian students 1.3% and whites 3.8% of students in those schools.

It’s unclear how the administration derived its 10% number, and it has not responded to multiple requests from EdSource for an explanation. Weber referred EdSource to the California Department of Education, which has not detailed its analysis. 

However, Allen said that by extending school improvement requirements to all schools and districts with very low-performing groups, Newsom’s plan would cover 95% of Black students statewide. Districts would use existing money under the funding formula to serve students outside of the schools receiving the new money. 

School eligibility would be determined by the proportion of students whose family incomes qualify for the federal free lunch programs: 90% of enrollment for elementary and middle schools, and 85% for high schools.  

The trailer bill provided additional details on what Newsom is proposing:

  • Accountability: The new “equity leads,” likely two to four county offices, will take the lead in helping school leaders create and implement plans to address disparities among student groups. They would work to establish “hubs of experience,” which could include networks of districts and nonprofits to help districts identify barriers and best practices. The state would pay for these efforts, but Newsom has not set an amount.
  • Mid-year review: School districts, county superintendents of schools and charter schools would be required to present a midyear progress update to the public by Feb. 28 each year. School leaders must share what has been implemented, how much money has been spent and whether any progress has been made toward goals outlined in the Local Control and Accountability Plan. 
  • Earlier release of California School Dashboard data: The timeline for local school districts to publicly report their performance data will move from December to October over the next four years.

Tempered responses

Before releasing the governor’s proposal, Newsom officials didn’t brief organizations representing schools, school administrators and county offices — those who will be charged with carrying them out. Until they’ve gotten reactions from their members, they’ve been cautious not to say much. 

“While we support the goal of providing additional resources to underserved student groups, we are still evaluating whether this particular approach is the best option for the challenges our students face in the current moment.” said Troy Flint, chief information officer of the California School Boards Association. 

Edgar Zazueta, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators, declined to comment pending further review.

Lennox, of the California County Superintendents, said his organization also doesn’t yet have a position on the equity multiplier. “There’s a lot to appreciate about how ambitious it is, but the field will be asking a lot of questions in the coming months about some of the mechanics. We feel like this is a really, really good first step in making strides towards system coherence.“

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