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Commentary: Why the Debate Between Advocates and Gov. Newsom Over Black Student Funding Is Heating Up

By Joe W. Bowers Jr. | California Black Media

When Gov. Gavin Newsom presented his 2023-24 budget, educators around the state were happy to hear his funding plans for California’s public schools.

The deficit had little impact on education funding.  K-12 per-pupil funding is $17,519 from the Prop 98 General Fund and is $23,723 per pupil when accounting for all funding sources. Last year, it was $22,893.

Newsom announced, “We’re keeping our promises.”

The budget reaffirms his commitment to invest in Transitional Kindergarten (TK)-12 education. Funding levels are being maintained for universal TK, community schools, behavioral health programs, special education, programs to mitigate learning loss during COVID-19, teacher and staff recruitment and retention and the universal meals program.

The biggest new program presented in the budget is called the LCFF (Local Control Funding Formula) Equity Multiplier.

“We made a commitment with leaders in the Assembly and the Senate, led by the great work that former Assemblymember Weber and now current member Weber is doing in terms of equity,” Newsom described the program. “We’re committing an additional $300 million in this year’s budget.”

Newsom was referring to the efforts Secretary of State Dr. Shirley Weber made with Assembly Bill (AB) 2635 and her daughter, Assemblymember Dr. Akilah Weber (D-San Diego), with AB 2774. The bills were written to fix the LCFF by creating a supplemental grant for California’s lowest-performing subgroup of students not currently receiving funding, which are African American students.

Black students have consistently been the lowest performing students in the state. Currently, 70% are not meeting the English Language Arts standards and 84% are not meeting math standards.

About 80,000 African American students — or just over 25% — are not receiving additional supplemental funding or accountability through the LCFF.

It’s only by targeting additional funds to the lowest performing subgroup that most school districts will be willing to adopt specific and concrete solutions to bridge the achievement gap for Black students.

Although Shirley Weber had shelved the bill in 2018, Gov. Jerry Brown agreed to fund AB 2635 with $300 million in one-time money. The funding went to “low performing students” not the “lowest-performing student subgroup”. It is estimated that Black students received about 8% of that amount.

Last year, AB 2774 passed through the Senate and Assembly without opposition, but Akilah Weber opted to pull the bill before it was sent to Newsom due to potential constitutional issues and lack of an appropriation to fund it. However, she secured Newsom’s commitment to include it in the 2023 budget – targeted funding that would address the needs of Black students.

However, the LCFF Equity Multiplier Program Newsom is proposing falls short of the expectations of the educators and education advocates that supported AB 2774.

They formed the Black in School Coalition  and they are asking Newsom to develop a program more like AB 2774.

Coalition member Debra Watkins,Founder and Executive Director of the California Alliance of African American Educators, told California Black Media (CBM) the program was, “Almost the opposite of what we were asking for… it’s misguided.”

Dr. Margaret Fortune, the president and CEO of  Fortune School of Education, a charter school network based Sacramento told CBM, “You have a proposal that is put out there as the solution for Black kids, but the funding is not going to get to the Black kids.”

The Equity Multiplier Program is a $300 million ongoing add-on to the LCFF to accelerate gains in closing opportunity and outcome gaps.

The funds will be allocated to LEAs (Local Educational Agency) which are a school district, county office of education, or charter school with schools serving high concentrations of students eligible for free meals (90% or more free meal eligibility for elementary and middle schools and 85% or more free meal eligibility for high schools).

Brooks Allen, Education Policy Advisor to the Governor and Executive Director of the California State Board of Education, revealed to CBM that budget trailer bill language is being written to strengthen the ties between the three elements of California’s accountability system: the LCAP, the California School Dashboard, and the Statewide System of Support.

According to Allen, the trailer bill will require LEAs, where student group performance is low on a Dashboard indicator at the school level, to include specific goals, actions, and funding to address these demonstrated student group and school-level needs in the LCAP and LEA budget.

Assemblymember Weber told CBM, “I am a huge supporter of this proposal in its entirety…. It’s about making sure that the money that we’re getting is being used properly. That it’s going to the students that are supposed to be getting it and making sure that whatever indicators that we have found to indicate poor academic performance are being improved.”

Watkins is not convinced. “LCFF is almost 10 years old, and accountability was baked into it. That accountability legislated through LCFF has failed Black children. The money that was supposed to be directed to Black children, hasn’t gone to them.”

The Governor’s program is trying to address the needs of Black students given constitutional constraints. But his office has not let the press know what the constraints are.

The advocates for improving Black student performance are urging Newsom not to shy away from the possibility of being sued. 

The members of the coalition and Newsom’s office have a meeting planned to, according to Allen, provide an opportunity for a “meeting of minds.”  

Watkins is open to continuing talks, but “they need to make adjustments.”

Fortune says, “We’re going to engage the governor’s office. And we’re going to get engaged in the Legislature, and we’re going to engage the court. We’ll be everywhere.”

The discussions about the LCFF Equity Multiplier have been conducted without the benefit of the budget trailer bill language. Details are expected to be available in early February.

Negotiations on how best to fund Black students are expected to be ongoing with the Governor’s office, the Black in School Coalition and the Legislature until May 15 when Newsom releases his May budget revision. And further negotiations will likely continue until the June 15 deadline for the Legislature to pass the budget bill.

Coalition member, Christina Laster, education advisor for Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, Western Region told CBM our motto is “No Justice, No Peace.  We will do what is necessary to gain justice.”

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