High school students at Oakland Technical High School in Oakland, Calif. (Alison Yin/EdSource)

Critics say Newsom’s proposal for low-performing students fails most Black students

This story first appeared on EdSource.

A plan by Gov. Gavin Newsom to increase oversight of all low-performing student groups and focus additional money on the state’s poorest schools has angered a coalition of Black education and civil rights organizations that had pressed him for extra state funding to help Black students.

Lengthy discussions with the governor took a different turn because Newsom’s legal advisers warned that targeting Black students, whose academic performance trails every other racial and ethnic group, could run afoul of Proposition 209. The constitutional amendment, which California voters passed in 1996 and reaffirmed in 2020, bars state action based on race.

Rather than target funds to Black students, Newsom’s plan would target the lowest-income schools that educate about 5% of all students and only 6% of Black students, an EdSource analysis shows. Black students make up 5.1% of the state’s students.

“It’s almost the opposite of what we were asking for,” said Debra Watkins, the founder and executive director of the California-based A Black Education Network.

Watkins is a member of the coalition that sought to increase funding to the roughly 80,000 Black students who do not already receive supplemental funding from the state. She said the governor’s proposal misses the point.

“We’re livid,” she said.

The divide surfaced last fall when Assemblymember Akilah Weber, D-La Mesa, proposed a bill that dedicated hundreds of millions of dollars in ongoing funding to Black students not already covered by state funding. The bill won broad legislative support, but Weber ultimately pulled the bill, AB 2774, after meeting with the governor and members of the California Legislative Black Caucus in August, citing “potential constitutional issues.” Newsom’s office refused to be more specific.

Weber called the governor’s compromise “a good first step,” but other Black organizations insist that the threat of Proposition 209 is overblown. She and others argued the bill would not violate the proposition because the money would go to closing the achievement gap of whichever racial or ethnic group performed the worst on standardized tests. Black students also lag in other metrics contributing to low performance, such as high suspension rates and chronic absenteeism.

Related: California Schools, Community Colleges To Face Slight Drop In Funding, First In A Decade

Newsom has not been afraid to risk a lawsuit when it comes to standing up for gun control or reproductive rights, said Margaret Fortune, the president and CEO of Fortune School, a group of charter schools in Sacramento serving primarily Black students.

“We want him to stand up for Black kids just like he does for other high-needs groups,” said Fortune.

Newsom’s plan, which is part of the 2023-24 state budget, includes $300 million in new ongoing annual funding to high-poverty schools for what he calls an “equity multiplier.” The funding would be divided among schools based on their students’ eligibility for free meals — at least 90% of students in elementary and middle schools and at least 85% of students in high schools. Newsom’s analysts chose free lunch rather than the broader measure of free and reduced lunch, which would more than double the number of eligible low-income schools and add to the expense of the plan.

Details of the proposals are expected in accompanying legislation, called the trailer bill, due out early in February.

The EdSource analysis estimates that funding from Newsom’s alternative would target 5% of students in the state. The students reached would be mostly Latino, while including about 6% of Black students statewide. The oversight requirements in Newsom’s proposal would extend to all schools in which Black students — or any other tracked student group — performed poorly.

For critics of Newsom’s proposal, there is one overriding fact: Black students have long lagged behind in academic performance as measured by state tests — and yet there has been no dedicated effort to address Black students in California.

Related: California Voters Rejecting Proposition 16 To Restore Affirmative Action

“When I started teaching, [Black students] were the lowest-performing subgroup in the state 45 years ago, and they still are now. That’s criminal,” Watkins said.

The governor’s solution doesn’t address the issue that the Black in School coalition raised — the need for more funding focused on Black student success beyond a small portion of schools. Watkins said the coalition was only included in discussions with senior members of the governor’s office a week before the budget proposal was announced.

Coalition members are concerned the governor’s broadly focused proposal will not be as effective as it would have been if it were specifically targeted.

“Historically, the children who need the most help in California don’t fare well with general, so-called equity measures where money is doled out based on their representation in the school population,” said Christina Laster, education adviser for Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, Western Region, in a statement on behalf of the Black in School coalition. “Black and Native American students get crumbs.”

The critics say the state must do more to narrow the gaps between Black students and other groups on state achievement tests. In 2021-22, 30.3% of Black students in California met the English language arts standards and just 15.9% met the standard in math.

That’s below every other racial or ethnic group, and drastically below white students who scored 61.4% in English language arts and 48.2% in math. It’s also behind low-income students as a whole: 35.2% of this group in California met English language arts standards and 21.2% met the standard in math.

Related: California Budget Deal Includes Extra Funding For Students With Lowest Test Scores

The gaps are long-standing and widened to over 30 points even before the pandemic when scores dropped for all students.

In 2018-19, 33% of Black students in California met the English language arts standards and just 20.5% met the standard in math compared with white students, who scored 65.4% in English language arts and 54.2% in math.

New focus on oversight

Newsom’s plan is more than new money, however. Expanding oversight of schools where student groups are performing poorly would mark a significant shift in how the state approaches academic improvement. The funding is important but increased oversight is the “real key” to this proposal, said Chris Ferguson, California’s program budget manager for education systems.

A point of contention since 2013 when the state adopted its funding plan for schools, known as the local control funding formula, has been whether state funding should be distributed to the district or schools based on performance on a number of metrics, including test scores. Former Gov. Jerry Brown, who championed the adoption of the formula, insisted that districts should lead the efforts, since the key decisions determining schools’ spending, curriculums, hiring of principals and contracts setting pay and working conditions are made at the district level.

That view of change has been at odds with school-based reforms of the federal government under the Every Student Succeeds Act. It requires that states identify low-performing schools and direct federal funding to those sites. California has complied with the federal program, called Comprehensive Support and Improvement but made it a low priority, with little oversight; Newsom’s equity multiplier would likely include several dozen of the 647 schools on the 2019 federal list, due to be updated soon.

“The Brown administration prioritized the district level and fit the federal school approach into the state accounting system begrudgingly,” said John Affeldt, managing attorney and director of education equity at Public Advocates, a nonprofit law firm. “The assumption was that districts would pay attention to the lowest-performing schools and student groups. Newsom recognizes that hasn’t happened enough, and there needs to be a heavier thumb on the scale to guide districts to pay more attention to them.”

Weber supports these requirements for increased accountability missing from her original bill. “Our school systems must show accountability that the funds they receive will be used on (low performing) students and produce improved academic performance,” she said, in a statement. She was unavailable to comment on the analysis showing that 6% of Black students would be reached by Newsom’s funding plan.

Under the local control funding formula, which distributes about three-quarters of state funding for TK-12, districts receive extra money based on the attendance of high-needs students. Those students are defined as English learners, low-income, foster and homeless students. There is no funding directed at racial or ethnic groups, and students in high-poverty schools located in low-poverty districts don’t receive extra “concentration” funding.

The Black in School coalition, which includes local NAACP chapters, Black Students of California United, charter schools and other organizations focused on Black student success, estimates that about a quarter of California’s Black students don’t qualify as high-needs students and so receive no additional funding.

The funding formula requires that districts create a comprehensive document, the Local Control and Accountability Plan, through a public process that demonstrates how they plan to use the additional state funding. They also must identify low-performing student groups, including by race and ethnicity, as designated by colors on the California School Dashboard.

Districts in which two or more student groups receive low ratings on multiple measures, such as test scores and chronic absences, are designated for limited help from their county offices of education. After working with the county to identify root causes of underperformance, districts are largely on their own to address achievement gaps. Only if underperformance increases over five years will the state impose additional measures — which has occurred in fewer than a half-dozen districts.

Critics and researchers, who include the California State Auditor, have said that in practice the public is often not involved enough in funding decisions and that it has remained difficult in many districts to track how extra funding is spent and whether it reaches students who need it the most.

“Most of the extra money has gone to districtwide programs and initiatives and not to the neediest schools,” Affeldt said.

Brian Rivas, senior director of policy and government relations, at Education Trust-West, agreed. “Most advocates would like to see greater confidence that the funding is reaching the intended students,” he said.

That would happen with more intensive oversight at the school level under Newsom’s plan, according to Brooks Allen, the executive director of the State Board of Education and an education adviser to Newsom. Schools would be required to identify disparities in performance, commit to goals, and evaluate whether it was successful. If the plan wasn’t effective, the school would be required to change course.

Outside monitors, probably from county offices of education, would analyze how schools are spending their money. The new “equity leads” also would ensure that schools are engaging with parents and the local community on a plan that addresses underlying issues, including hiring, assigning and retaining qualified teachers.

“It’s very focused on all the student groups that have the greatest needs, and certainly Black students are squarely among them,” Allen said. “We think this focuses those resources in a more meaningful way than just talking about fund generation.”

As an example, the 890 out of 10,558 schools where Black students ranked “very low” for math performance would be required to identify and tackle this disparity, Allen said.

Executive Director of Education Trust-West Christopher J. Nellum wrote in a statement that changes to California’s school funding mechanism will “become an even sharper tool for advancing educational equity.”

© EdSource

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