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Assemblywoman Shirley Weber introduced two bills in Sacramento to address concerns with how districts dole out school funding meant for vulnerable students – but this week, only one of them made it out of committee.
The biggest news in California education this week is the state’s newly projected $54 billion shortfall. The state budget pays for a lot of things, but school costs make up the biggest share of expenses. As of right now, schools across the state are expected to lose $18 billion next year.
That’s a bigger hit than schools took during the great recession. It would be the “biggest cuts to schools we have ever seen in California,” wrote San Diego County Superintendent of Schools Paul Gothold.
But during the all-too-relevant clamor over how California is going to pay for its children to go to school, one initiative that has been building over the past seven years quietly died: a bill by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber to require that money intended to go to the most vulnerable students … you know … actually go to the most vulnerable students.
Reading about school finance can be like falling into a tar pit, but I promise to get you through this, so walk with me:
The state allocates a certain amount of “base” money to each school district in California. But school districts with higher concentrations of poverty – and higher proportions of English-learners or foster students – get extra “supplemental” and “concentration” funding.
These students have historically had a much harder time succeeding in school. But back in 2013, then-Gov. Jerry Brown ushered in this new funding model that would direct more money to kids who need it most. This, in turn, would help close the achievement gap, the thinking went.
But it turns out, many districts just haven’t been spending the money on the kids they are supposed to, according to a state audit last year. San Diego Unified, for instance, spent $5 million of its supplemental money on library services for all kids.
Enter Weber, the San Diego legislator with a reputation for going up against the most unbeatable of opponents – teachers unions, police unions – and winning.
“I’m going to raise hell about it,” Weber told us in February of potential efforts to kill her accountability bill.
Weber wanted to force school districts to prove they were spending their supplemental money on vulnerable young people, and she wanted to close a loophole related to the money. In January, she introduced two bills to address her concerns – but this week, only one of them made it out of committee.
Weber’s first concern was to make school districts accountable for the money. One of her bills, AB 1834, would force them to explain in clear language what they spend money on each year.
But she also wanted to make sure that districts stopped exploiting a provision that allowed them to roll over funds earmarked for vulnerable students into their general funds. That was the purpose of the other bill, AB 1835.
The latter bill, the one that closes the rollover loophole, passed through an Assembly committee this week. But its companion measure – the one forcing schools to explain where they’re spending the money – is dead for the year, Weber’s spokesman Joe Kocurek confirmed.
The education committee has no more meetings for this session, so “it’s not going to be heard,” Kocurek said.
Without that first bill, it’s unclear how much closing the loophole will matter. School districts are already required to report on how they spend their money. But the reporting is so Byzantine that it’s widely acknowledged no one can really understand where the funds are going.
Yes, school districts will, in theory, be required to spend their supplemental funds on vulnerable students – as they always have. And if AB 1835 passes and is ultimately signed by the governor, they will no longer be able to roll over that money and simply toss it into their general fund.
Closing that loophole would eliminate the easiest way for school districts to misuse supplemental money. If they want to keep spending supplemental funds on whatever they want, all they have to do is continue to hide behind indecipherable financial reporting.
Some people have told Weber it would be too burdensome for school districts to have to explain how they spend their money.
Here’s how she countered that when she introduced the accountability bills earlier this year: “The real burden is on the children who do not get the services they deserve. The real burden is living a life without having the adequate skills to make a living. And so if I give you billions of dollars and you consider it a burden to tell me what you did with it, then we should find someone else who doesn’t see it as a burden but sees it as an opportunity to help children, so that they will not be burdened by ignorance.”
Superintendent Cindy Marten did a cheery Facebook Live video Monday, which she said was geared to answer parents’ deeper questions about what is exactly is going on with that thing we used to call school.
The session (which will be recurring every Monday at 11 a.m., she said) was light on facts and heavy on sentimental reassurance. The most frequent question was about what would happen with high school graduation ceremonies. Well friends, a committee of students is working on that very question, she told her viewers.
One of the deepest questions to go conspicuously unanswered had to do with education time. Several parents mentioned that their children are only getting an hour or two of screen time with their teachers each week. They said they didn’t want their children on the computer all day, but at least one hour a day might be nice.
One wondered, “Can a pandemic clause be added to the MOU to increase minimum instruction time to at least five hours per week, or one hour per day?”
He was referring to the district’s memorandum of understanding with the local teacher’s union, which does not stipulate how much interaction time between teachers and students should occur. The current MOU only indicates that teachers cannot be required to work more than four hours a day.
Marten – who said she probably missed some queries as they were scrolling past – did not address the question.