Advocates propose an alternative to refocus budget on Black students

A high school student listens to a classmate's presentation. PHOTO BY ALLISON SHELLEY FOR EDUIMAGES

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to increase funding to high-poverty schools represents what critics say is a broken promise to tackle a stubborn achievement gap for Black students.

Black in School, a coalition of Black education and civil rights groups, has come up with a counterproposal that would provide additional funding for Black students. The group says the alternative would be compatible with Proposition 209, which bans affirmative action, and the Newsom administration’s effort to hold districts and schools accountable for spending.

Newsom’s plan, which he calls the “equity multiplier,” would send $300 million to about 800 schools with concentrated poverty. However, an EdSource analysis found those schools enroll only 6.6% of California’s Black students, which the Black in School coalition calls a “perverse outcome” for a policy they have advocated for to address the longstanding low performance of Black students statewide.

It’s not what the advocates were seeking from Newsom, said Margaret Fortune, the president and CEO of Fortune School, a group of charter schools in Sacramento serving primarily Black students. Their plan was “an apple, and this is an orange,” she said.

“I thought the governor dropped the ball,” said Tyrone Howard, director of the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools.

California hasn’t shied away from taking “unapologetic” action to improve the outcomes for groups, such as English learners, he said. He worries there is a reluctance in the state to engage in any sustained effort focused on Black students, but he said “bold and customized” solutions are exactly what these students need.

Data indicates persistent racial disparities in test scores and other metrics that the state tracks across poor and wealthy districts. Advocates say that money is critical to identifying and addressing the systemic causes.

An EdSource analysis of the wealthiest 10% of schools in the state found that 50.7% of Black students met or exceeded English test standards compared with 73.3% of white students. In math, 32.6% of Black students met or exceeded math test standards compared with 58.7% of white students.

The differences were even starker at the state’s poorest schools. In English, 16.8% of Black students met or exceeded test standards compared with 31.7% of white students. In math, just 6.1% of Black students met or exceeded compared with 14.4% of white students.

Complexities of the Local Control Funding Formula are complicating efforts to resolve differences between the Newsom administration’s plan and the advocates who want money more closely tied to helping Black students. The 10-year-old funding formula requires that districts measure the performance of eight racial and ethnic groups on a half-dozen metrics, including test scores, graduation rates and chronic absences, and then spend supplemental funding for “high-needs students” to create improvement plans for all low-performing groups.

The challenge for Newsom and the Black leaders is that any funding formula the state imposes must steer clear of Proposition 209’s ban on affirmative action. Racial and ethnic groups are the only groups that are tracked that are not targeted for additional funding. The current funding formula directs extra funding to high-needs students: low-income, English learners, foster and homeless.

Low-income students and Latinos have been able to see substantial gains in test scores under the Local Control Funding Formula, said Bruce Fuller, a professor at the Berkeley School of Education. During the same period, Black students have seen flat results, Fuller’s research into Los Angeles schools shows.

“If resources and accountability have driven results with [those] groups, why wouldn’t we take the same approach with African American students and Native American students?” Fortune said.

Newsom’s additional funding for the equity multiplier in this budget is part of a larger plan to overhaul how the state can hold districts and schools accountable for students’ performance, with particular attention to racial disparities. All districts and schools with student groups in the lowest ranking on any metric on the California School Dashboard would be required to set improvement goals and allocate funding needed to achieve them, and then measure the progress.

Newsom would designate the “equity multiplier” schools for priority assistance from the state and provide them the additional $300 million to help the low-performing student groups. Black public school students, who number about 300,000 statewide, have persistently scored the lowest among racial and ethnic groups on the dashboard’s metrics. The Newsom administration assumed that they would be concentrated in the equity multiplier schools, which include charter and alternative county schools, but that appears not to be so. By EdSource’s analysis, they were only slightly overrepresented.

“The accountability provisions are moving in the right direction,” said Adonai Mack, senior director of education at Children Now. “But the resources also have to be there. I don’t think we can separate the two.”

To rectify that, the Black in School coalition proposes amending the funding formula to provide additional funding for any group not already funded that scores below the state average on any two metrics on the dashboard. The only unfunded groups tracked are racial and ethnic categories. Black and Native American students would qualify, based on this year’s dashboard results.

Focusing extra resources to help the lowest-performing racial and ethnic groups improve their test scores would not violate Proposition 209, the advocates claim. This year Black and Native American students would benefit from this proposal, but other groups could benefit in the future, depending on their performance, Mack said.

But Fuller said he is concerned that conservative groups wouldn’t hesitate to sue the Newsom administration for funding aimed at specific racial groups. He worries the proposal might get into trouble legally if it appears to be reverse-engineered to benefit Black students.

“I sort of worry that the advocates are pooh-poohing the governor’s concern about a lawsuit,” he said. “I think that is a serious threat.”

Newsom has skirted the issue of race in the equity multiplier by focusing on schools with high concentrations of poverty. But a recent report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office noted that these schools already receive funding targeted at high-poverty schools from both the federal and state government.

Advocates wanted to see funding that covers all Black students — not just those who are classified as low-income, foster or homeless students who already receive additional funding from the state. Black in School estimates that an additional 81,617 Black students and 8,807 Native American students would be eligible for this funding.

Advocates note that the Reparations Task Force headed by the state attorney general has endorsed their approach. A preliminary report this June recommended funding Black students through the state’s funding formula.

Mack said he’s glad that California is having this conversation about the systemic problems Black students face through the Reparations Task Force, but that it’s “very wild and interesting” to see that progress on this issue has hit a wall during this budget cycle.

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