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Brett McFadden: An historic opportunity missed

 

Every May, the governor of California is required to release the May Budget Revision for the next fiscal year beginning July 1. The document updates the governor’s January budget proposal based on updated state tax revenues and projections.

On Friday, May 12, Gov. Gavin Newsom released his May revision for 2021-22 state budget plan. Included in the revision was a significant increase in education spending.

Unfortunately, it is an historic opportunity missed.



With an unprecedented one-time, massive windfall of state tax revenues and federal grants to address impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, this budget could have been an historic opportunity to address nearly three decades of California’s woefully underfunded and disjointed education system.

Unless the governor and Legislature listen to local educators and take action, that opportunity could be lost.



Do not get me wrong, the budget update contains education proposals that are generous, ambitious and certainly well-intentioned. It includes $20 billion for universal pre-kindergarten, community schools, mental health, academic intervention, teacher recruitment, college savings accounts and smaller classes.

No doubt that those are noble public policy initiatives. Yet many underlying and nagging structural funding problems facing education and local school districts remain unaddressed.

The proposed budget creates a host of new programs with one-time funding, posing serious sustainability concerns. In addition, a large share of new funding is obligated to new categorical programs that are not readily and equitably available to all school districts.

Small and rural districts such as the Nevada Joint Union High School District comprise over 60 percent of school districts in this state. Those districts will continue to be challenged and proportionately underfunded if this budget proposal is enacted.

Because they lack the infrastructure or the student population mandated by the governor’s new categorical programs, over a third of all school districts may not even be able to apply to participate in those new programs. The majority of those potentially losing out will be small school districts from rural areas of the state.

Small, rural school districts such as ours will be denied participation because we do not have the same numbers of specific student demographics as urban districts. Urban districts will benefit at the expense of our state’s small and rural districts.

All our state’s public education students need to be treated, and funded, equitably. Factoring for students’ racial, social and economic characteristics is certainly good public policy, but this year’s record-breaking funding should be allocated on a more proportionate methodology so that all school districts can benefit in a more fair and equitable manner.

A better approach would be an allocation strategy that also factors for local districts’ geography, size, and student demographics.

This may sound harsh, but I fear that the governor’s approach to the 2021-22 education budget is more aligned to issues that make great sound bites and are politically expedient.

Instead of proposing another layer of new programs, the administration should put forth proposals that address current systemic inequities in our education system, and provide all school districts with their fair share of education funding.

And whatever happened to local control?

In 2013 under then-Gov. Jerry Brown, state government assigned local school districts the responsibility to determine how to fund the unique needs of their communities and students.

In my opinion, that is when school districts started to make the greatest gains in addressing academic, social-emotional, and equity needs of their students. Educators welcomed a system that held us accountable but largely let us control where and how to spend monies allocated to our districts.

This May budget revision, as proposed, chooses to forgo local control — the bedrock of the state’s local control funding formula approach to funding public education — and regress back to the days of numerous categorical programs with restrictive rules and regulations.

Instead of providing local districts the flexibility to address local needs, the governor locks up much of the new funding into targeted categorical programs and exacerbates an already disjointed state education bureaucracy.

As the governor’s proposed budget receives more intense scrutiny and moves through the legislative process, small school districts will advocate as well as educate.

The Small School Districts Association of California, of which I have the honor of being their treasurer and board member, has already made its concerns known in communications with the governor and members of the Legislature: “Throughout the pandemic, small districts have demonstrated that our students are best served when we are provided adequate resources and broad authority to make decisions. The governor has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to bring California education funding up to the national average, and we strongly recommend that we fix that longstanding issue before building out new programs.”

The association represents more than 400 school districts in California. The majority of the state’s 1,100 school districts are categorized as small with fewer than 2,500 students (like Nevada Joint Union), with the vast majority serving fewer than 1,000 students.

We will continue to push for long-term, sustained change in the way school districts are funded, and in turn welcome a renewed responsibility to determine how we can best serve our unique communities and the unique needs of students.

Nevada Joint Union High School District Superintendent Brett W. McFadden writes a monthly column for The Union. He has more than 30 years of education leadership and policy experience statewide. Freelance writer Lorraine Jewett contributed to this column.

Brett W. McFadden

 


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