by Hugh Biggar
California’s K-12 public schools are underfunded and under-resourced, with battles over budgets and other concerns hitting school districts at an increasing rate.
At the same time, large cohorts of students — particularly African Americans, English learners and Latinos — are being left behind academically. California also ranks at the bottom nationally in per-pupil funding and in several critical staffing categories. Only recently have Golden State schools begun returning to funding levels of 15 years ago, before the Great Recession hit.

Still, California’s public schools have endured nearly 40 years of decline after being among the best nationally in the 1970s. Since then, property taxes funding public schools have dwindled under Proposition 13, the number of students in classrooms has grown, the rise of charter schools has further drained funds and resources, and there is a growing teacher shortage as costs of living and housing escalate. Meanwhile, districts across the state experienced costly teacher strikes and labor unrest this spring.

These are among the educational challenges facing Gov. Gavin Newsom in his first term; challenges he acknowledged in his State of the State speech in February, stating, “We are still 41st in the nation in per-pupil funding. Something needs to change.”

To help spark that change, Gov. Newsom has proposed funding a wide range of educational initiatives spelled out in his 2019–20 budget proposal. Broadly, his agenda centers on increasing funding and programs for early childhood education and special education; making more money available for school construction and modernization; developing a unified data system to better track student progress; and providing pension cost relief for local educational agencies.

In terms of spending, this agenda includes:
  • $350,000 in one-time Proposition 98 funds to create a single data system to track school success
  • $1.5 billion in Proposition 51 bond funding (approved by voters in 2016) for school construction and modernization projects
  • $20.2 million in Proposition 98 funds for county offices of education to strengthen systems of support for school districts
  • $40 million for a second year of free community college tuition for Californians
  • $125 million in non-Proposition 98 General Fund money to expand the State Preschool Program
  • $2 billion in increased money to the Local Control Funding Formula (supports a 3.46 percent cost-of-living adjustment)
  • $3 billion in one-time non-Proposition 98 General Fund money to CalSTRS to reduce pension costs for K-12 schools and community colleges
  • $8 billion for early childhood education and childcare
  • $80.7 billion in funding for the Proposition 98 guarantee
How much of this will happen and how it will happen is, for now, an open question, especially ahead of a May budget revision and possible downturns in the state’s economy or further lower returns on tax revenues. The March 2019 California Fiscal Focus newsletter from the state controller’s office cited that the state’s total revenues of $5.51 billion in February were lower than was forecasted in the Governor’s proposed budget by 19.5 percent.

Even so, education leaders and policy experts say that Gov. Newsom’s commitment to California schools and students represents positive momentum after decades of neglect.

“Gov. Newsom is being really thoughtful in his approach and priorities and pushing for long-term quality over quantity in his initiatives,” said Xilonin Cruz-Gonzalez, CSBA President-elect and a board member with Azusa Unified School District.

Added Tom Armelino, executive director for the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence, which supports county offices in aiding struggling districts and schools, “It’s an incredible budget for a first-term governor, and he shows the right amount of support of schools and college and a real grasp of education issues from differentiated systems of support to special education costs to pensions to early childhood education.”

“From a county board perspective,” said Dana Dean, president of the California County Boards of Education and a trustee with the Solano County Board of Education, “the overall increases in funding, for example to the base grant and supplemental grant, as well as $3 billion dollars to offset retirement liabilities, are essential to moving forward on the long road toward Full and Fair Funding of education in our great state.”

The Propostion 98 guarantee
At the top of his budget, the Governor is proposing $60 billion for K-12 schools and to fund the Proposition 98 minimum guarantee at $80.7 billion or $12,003 in ongoing K-12 per-pupil spending. This represents a $2.9 billion increase compared to the 2018–19 funding and an average increase of $435 per student. The funding would help provide LEAs with a baseline guarantee and a financial foundation to help build out other needed programs. In per-pupil spending, the amount is still below the recommendation that researchers at Policy Analysis for California Education, or PACE, say is needed. That amount, on average, is $16,890, and those costs increase for districts and county offices of education with high numbers of socioeconomically disadvantaged students.
Early Childhood and Special Education
Another key component of Gov. Newsom’s spending plan is increasing funding for early childhood and special education — though several key details of these proposals are still being fleshed out leading up to the May Revision. For early childhood education, Gov. Newsom’s focus on readiness for kindergarten underscores an ongoing challenge in the state. PACE, for example, found that California students have one of the largest gaps in preparedness for elementary school students of any state. The long-term effects include higher rates of dropping out of school and suspension, among other issues.

“As a former superintendent, I have seen the power of early childhood education and students arriving at kindergarten prepared,” Armelino said. “The gap is significant and there is no better place to spend our resources.”

To make this happen, the Governor has proposed $1.8 billion for early childhood education and childcare. The budget includes $125 million in non-Proposition 98 General Fund money to expand the State Preschool Program by increasing access to subsidized full-day slots for low-income 4-year-olds. There would also be $750 million in one-time non-Proposition 98 General Fund money to help schools construct or expand classrooms for full-day kindergarten.

Money would also be allocated for special education, starting with the early ages. There would be $167 million in one-time investments for special education and care for children up to the age of 5. Overall, the Governor proposes spending $576 million in Proposition 98 funds to support services for students with disabilities. With the help of a one-time $186 million, funds would be targeted to expanding services at LEAs with high percentages of both students with disabilities and low-income, foster youth and English learner students.

School facilities
As for school facilities, Gov. Newsom proposes increasing the amount of money that has trickled out of Sacramento in the form of general obligation bonds for K-12 schools, a move encouraged by CSBA in an open letter to the then-gubernatorial candidates that appeared in major newspapers across the state last fall. Under Proposition 51, passed in November 2016, California is authorized to release $7 billion in state bond sales. So far, only a small amount of those bonds has been released. While it is generally understood there is a need for new and updated school facilities — with many California school buildings more than 50 years old — there is no state inventory of the condition of schools.

If the Governor’s proposal is realized, the amount of Proposition 51 money for new facilities and modernization would increase by $906 million over the amount released in the prior budget act. CSBA continues to advocate for the release of the full complement of voter-approved Proposition 51 bond money to fund projects on the Office of Public School Construction workload list — many of which have been awaiting funding for several years.

Harnessing the power of data
The CCEE’s Armelino cited the importance of Gov. Newsom’s proposal for a unified data system to track student progress. “It’s a real opportunity to reduce isolation within the system and improve collaboration so we are not all writing reports but not talking to each other,” he said, noting the various accountability systems involved, including the California School Dashboard and the Local Control and Accountability Plan. “The [proposed] unified data system to track student progress is a great way to streamline and have cohesion on a lot of complex issues.”
The pension problem
One factor that could shortchange these ambitious goals for school districts is the soaring cost of pensions. In one analysis, CSBA determined that school district contributions to pensions are expected to more than double by 2024, thus taking away more money from educational programs. To help offset those costs, the Governor has proposed a $3 billion one-time non-Proposition 98 payment to CalSTRS to help LEAs reduce their liabilities.
“The funding allocated for the new initiatives is a great starting point and will immediately assist in supporting our mission.”
Xilonin Cruz-Gonzalez, CSBA President-elect and trustee, Azusa USD
An additional $700 million would be provided to buy down the employer contribution rates in 2019–20 and 2020–21.

While any effort to help reduce pension costs for schools and districts is appreciated, CSBA Legislative Advocate Cheryl Ide stressed that the amount would not be a cure-all. “Similar to a credit card, rather than paying down the minimum, the amount paid would go toward paying down the principal,” she explained. “But pension obligations are still going to be an ongoing issue for districts.”

Other issues are also yet to be addressed by the Governor. In one example, California faces a severe teaching shortage as the under-resourced schools and high costs of living and housing drive many to find jobs out of state. Also in short supply are critical support staff such as librarians, school counselors and nurses. Azusa USD trustee Cruz-Gonzalez said her district near Los Angeles has one nurse for 18 school sites and the teacher shortage is especially critical. This is especially true in hard-to-staff areas such as bilingual learning.

Charter schools, too, have become a contentious flashpoint. In a victory for legislation that has been supported by CSBA in previous legislative sessions, Senate Bill 126 (Leyva, D-Chino and O’Donnell, D-Long Beach) sped through the Legislature in February and was signed by the Governor in early March. The bill, which requires charter school adherence to transparency and accountability measures (Brown Act, Public Records Act, Political Reform Act and Government Code 1090) that have long applied to traditional public schools, was followed by a package of legislation introduced in the Assembly related to charter schools, most of which remain a work in progress as the legislative session continues into the summer.

For many school leaders and trustees, SB 126 was one more sign that the Governor’s education agenda is heading in the right direction.

Said San Diego County Office of Education board member Rick Shea, whose COE is composed of 42 school districts and nearly 500,000 students, “the funding allocated for the new initiatives is a great starting point and will immediately assist in supporting our mission.”

Added Cruz-Gonzalez, “We understand not everything is going to be in the budget, but his proposals provide a realistic starting point to better provide a better education for all students — and provide funds to pay for them.”

Hugh Biggar is a staff writer for California Schools.