As California Faces Dramatic Student Enrollment Decline, Officials Search To Stabilize School Funding

By Dr. Margaret Fortune, President/CEO of Fortune School

Schools have become an extension of the public health system in California’s response to COVID-19.  As the leader of a public school system, I can tell you we have become masters of administering weekly COVID-19 tests to thousands of students and teachers, hosting vaccination clinics, and doing contact tracing. It’s a lot of pressure.

Meanwhile, student enrollment is dropping dramatically across the state. To put it in context, student enrollment was already in steady decline before the pandemic because of low birth rates and migration.  In the 2018-19 school year, student enrollment in California fell by 23,000 students. Last school year in 2020-21, California schools lost 160,000 students, nearly seven times the figure two years ago.   

The pandemic has severely impacted student attendance. Unfortunately, it has become common for parents to receive notices from school saying their child has been exposed to COVID-19. Some parents are opting to keep their children home which is beginning to cause a sharp increase in chronic absenteeism in schools.

This is a huge problem for California public schools, because they rely on students’ average daily attendance for their state funding.  In a year when California is expecting to have a $29 billion budget surplus, it’s imperative that elected officials give the state’s children the first call on the treasury by making school funding stable.  

Senator Ben Allen, a Santa Monica Democrat has a good idea to ensure predictable public school funding.  SB 579 (Allen), would hold schools harmless from drops in enrollment for this school year and next. This bill is on a fast track.  It sailed through the Senate (37-0) and as of the writing of this column is in the Assembly.  We applaud Senator Allen for his amendment to include public charter schools in the bill as well. Funding for school districts has always been protected from drops in student enrollment from year to year, but not for public charter schools.  Senator Allen’s bold action will keep all schools “whole” during a time when we are experiencing the traumatic impact of the pandemic. 

SB 830 introduced by Senator Anthony Portantino, a Democrat representing the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys, is another piece of legislation that deals with how schools are funded. This bill proposes that the California Department of Education stop funding schools based on average daily attendance and instead provide funding according to a school’s enrollment numbers. California’s policy to fund schools based on average daily attendance made sense before we were in a pandemic. Now that public health officials are advising schools to require that parents keep their children at home if they are symptomatic, the rules about funding schools based on attendance must change with the times. The problem is SB 830 (Portantino) excludes public charter schools from the fix.  That means 690,657 of California’s public-school children would be left behind in the old funding scheme. That is unacceptable. It’s particularly problematic for Black students because their parents are more likely to choose public charter schools than other ethnic groups. That means that these students would be funded at a lower level than their counterparts in school districts.  Senator Portantino should amend SB 830 to include public charter schools so the bill is helpful to all of California’s public school children.  

As we continue to navigate through a pandemic where the state’s response is heavily reliant on using a child’s school as the delivery system for education and public health, one lesson is abundantly clear. Providing in-person instruction during a pandemic is teaching us new things about the best way to fund schools. Enrollment and attendance are fluctuating as parents make decisions about whether they feel safe sending their child to school. If we want schools to stay open, lawmakers must stabilize funding for all public schools — including charters. In a state that has a surplus of funding, it is critical that our elected officials prioritize fully funding all schools to protect us from further feeling the impact of the pandemic.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Margaret Fortune is the President/CEO of Fortune School, a system of nine, K-12 public charter schools with over 2,300 students focused on closing the Black achievement gap by preparing students for college.  She is a State Delegate on the California Democratic Party (CDP) State Central Committee where she also is an elected member of the Executive Board of the CDP Black Caucus. Fortune is Treasurer of National Action Network (NAN) Sacramento and has been an education advisor to two California Governors.  She is a graduate of the UC Berkeley and Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government.