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California lawmakers may stop tying K-12 schools’ funding to daily attendance

Students sound out words phonetically at Esperanza Elementary School in Los Angeles in August 2019. 
(Liz Moughon / Los Angeles Times)



After decades of linking K-12 school funding to daily student attendance, California lawmakers are poised to consider abolishing that standard, choosing instead a new method that could provide a significant boost to big districts such as Los Angeles Unified.

State Sen. Anthony Portantino (D–La Cañada Flintridge) will introduce legislation on Monday that would tie education funding to annual enrollment rather than average daily attendance records. The move could bring in an additional $3 billion in annual state funding for schools, Portantino said.

California has long funded its 1,000-plus school districts based on how often students show up to class instead of a total head count of those enrolled. The policy has been promoted as a way to hold schools accountable for student absences.

But supporters of the new bill, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, say that an enrollment-based policy is less volatile and will allow schools to tap into more money and better plan for spending.

To address absentee concerns, Portantino’s proposal requires that at least half of any new funds schools receive under the new policy be put toward combating chronic absenteeism and truancy.

“This should not be seen at all as an effort to devalue getting kids in class,” Portantino said in an interview with The Times. “That’s a red herring argument.”

Twelve percent of California’s 6 million-plus K-12 students were marked “chronically absent” in 2018-19, meaning they missed at least 10% of the school year. The chronic absenteeism rate for Black students was more than double that of white students.

In November, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office projected that K-12 schools and community colleges will receive more than $102.6 billion in the current fiscal year — almost $9 billion more than what was already hailed as a record amount of funding when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the state budget last summer. Public schools have been guaranteed the largest single share of general fund revenue since voters approved education funding formulas in 1988.

Supporters of Portantino’s bill said that student absences during the pandemic have brought to light the problems many campuses have long faced due to linking funding to attendance.

“Our current attendance-based funding system takes resources away from schools in lower-income communities because they experience higher rates of absenteeism,” California School Employees Assn. President Shane Dishman said in a statement. “The truth is, attendance-based funding punishes students in schools that most need the state’s financial support.”

Although a shift to enrollment-based funding could create a wider gap between small and large districts, the bill states that no school would receive less funding.

A “hold harmless” provision would maintain current funding levels but allow districts to apply for supplemental funding if enrollment totals are greater than the average daily attendance formula. The bill would go into effect in the 2023-24 school year.

“What we’re saying is, let’s give them what the actual enrollment numbers are and that will translate into extra dollars for districts. No school district will lose money, it will only force the pot to grow,” Portantino said. “My districts have been saying for years that this would lead to more stability and more funds.”

California is among only a handful of states, including Texas and Kentucky, that base school funding on average daily attendance.

Portantino’s proposal comes after Newsom moved to temporarily protect California schools from attendance-based funding penalties as students were forced out of classrooms by the COVID-19 pandemic. The long-standing attendance rules have since been set back in motion as a way to promote in-person instruction.

Last year, the California Department of Education reported its largest drop in enrollment in 20 years, with about 160,000 fewer students than the prior year. A significant portion of those losses were among kindergartners, with families choosing to opt out of entering a school system during one of the most disruptive years in history.

But even without pandemic-related absences, school officials have been warning of the financial consequences of declining enrollment. California’s population fell in 2020 for the first time in the state’s recorded history — due in part to plummeting birth rates — with 5- to 17-year-olds making up a smaller portion of the population each year, according to state Department of Finance researchers.

Proponents of Portantino’s plan say that, regardless of changes in overall enrollment, an enrollment-based policy will always offer the potential for more dollars, as attendance can change by the day.

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