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Oakland charters join chorus calling on California to change how it funds schools

With higher absence rates due to COVID, some school leaders say it’s time to stop tying attendance to funding.

By Ashley McBride  | February 15, 2022
Original article found here.

With public schools across California getting ready to finalize their budgets for the 2022-2023 school year over the next few months, some local charter schools are sounding the alarm on state funding policies that could result in hundreds of thousands of dollars lost next year.

Leaders at Aspire Public Schools and other charter organizations with schools in Oakland started a petition in December to call attention to how the state’s education finance laws could severely reduce funding for charter schools next year, because of COVID-related absences this year.

Public schools in California, including charters, receive state funding based on in-person daily attendance averages. When planning budgets for the following school year, district officials typically use projections based on the current year’s average daily attendance (ADA).

Oakland has 43 charter schools that enroll about 17,000 students. Individuals and groups who want to start charter schools here have to get approval from Oakland Unified School District, and any changes made to their charter after that must also be approved by OUSD, but otherwise charter schools are run by their own boards and charter management organizations.

Assembly Bill 167, passed by the state legislature in 2021, allowed traditional public schools in districts like OUSD to use attendance numbers from the 2019-2020 school year (prior to pandemic shutdowns) to establish funding levels for 2020-2021 and the 2021-2022 school year, so that they wouldn’t lose funding during prolonged periods of distance learning. After that, schools will have to use current attendance numbers.

But public charter schools were not given that option, meaning lower attendance during the pandemic will impact their school budgets next year. Charter leaders and advocates feel the law is penalizing students and schools for trying to stay safe and follow quarantine policies.

The petition, which has about 1,700 signatures from mainly charter school families and supporters, is calling on state legislators to come up with a solution that will allow schools to maintain their current levels of funding for another year.

“We’re all going through a pandemic right now—still, almost two years later—and we need our systems and our financial structure to be more responsive to the state we’re all still in,” said Jay Stack, the principal at Aspire Berkley Maynard Academy, a K-8 school in North Oakland. “I understand they want to make sure kids are in school learning and schools are doing everything they can, but it’s not responsive to the fact that COVID is the reason kids are not in school full time right now.”

Charter schools aren’t the only ones hurting. Despite being allowed to use attendance numbers from 2019-2020, OUSD cut roughly $40 million from its budget last month to address its longstanding deficit and anticipated reductions in state funding over the next several years, and to make room in the budget to raise teacher and staff salaries. Attendance rates prior to the pandemic in OUSD were around 94% each year. But this year, from August through January, attendance rates are averaging around 87%.

State law is becoming a focal point for both district and charter schools

While charter school and public school supporters can often be on opposing sides of local education debates, the need to re-examine California’s attendance-driven funding model for schools is one they can agree on, and some of the solutions being proposed by school and state leaders that have been gaining momentum could benefit all public schools.

Senator Anthony Portantino in southern California introduced a bill last month that would tie school funding to enrollment in addition to attendance, beginning in 2023. State schools Superintendent Tony Thurmond expressed his support for Senate Bill 830 last week.

“This is a system that creates an incredible lack of equity for many California schools,” Thurmond said about the attendance model. “Schools that have the kind of circumstances that drive higher rates of absenteeism find that they lose the kind of revenue they need to actually address the issues that cause chronic absenteeism.”

Thurmond added that if SB 830 passes, Oakland Unified could receive an additional $24 million or more. The bill would enable districts with low attendance numbers to receive supplemental funding based on enrollment, which is higher than attendance. Schools would have to use at least half of that extra funding to address chronic absenteeism and truancy.

Governor Gavin Newsom has proposed allowing districts to average their attendance numbers over three years instead of just one, to avoid drastic funding changes from year to year.

With the pandemic ongoing, student absences at both charter and district schools have been significantly higher this year because of students getting COVID and staying home, policies that require entire classes to quarantine for 10 days after there has been a positive case, and families keeping children home out of fear of them catching the virus. That means schools are expecting serious hits to their budgets during a time when they’ve made extra investments in safety precautions and support for students.

Schools spent extra money this year on PPE and hiring more people to support students

The school year started off a bit rocky at Aspire Berkley Maynard Academy, as Stack and his  assistant principal had to cover classes at the beginning of the year because of staff absences, and school leaders had to figure out how to implement quarantine rules. At the same time, the school had hired literacy coaches to support students who had been learning from home for more than a year, spent money to support students’ emotional well-being and mental health, and bought loads of personal protective equipment to keep students safe. Between September and December, things began to run more smoothly, Stack said.

Then, the omicron surge landed in the Bay Area.

“Coming back to school after winter break, every day is like, ‘How many people are going to be out, and how can we leverage who is at the school to make sure the kids are safe and supervised?’” Stack said.

On a recent Friday in January, 467 students were at school out of about 540 total students, or an attendance rate of about 86%. Attendance rates for previous years hovered around 94 to 96% at the North Oakland school, but this year it’s around 90% so far. That could lead to a loss of about $415,000 next year, Stack said.

Berkley Maynard Academy’s revenues for this year were about $8 million, including roughly $5.8 million in ADA funding. The hires and investments that the school made at the beginning of the year to help students transition back to in-person learning could be at risk with next year’s anticipated budget cuts.

“If they have to do staff cuts and I’m one of them, I think about how that would affect students,” said Monika Ellis, who works as a student support manager at Berkley Maynard Academy and has a daughter at the school. “They’ve already lost so much.”

Aspire Public Schools is a charter network with campuses in Oakland, East Palo Alto, the Central Valley, and southern California. Among the Bay Area schools, attendance this year through December was around 89%. In January, Aspire schools in the Bay Area had attendance rates between 63% and 80%.

KIPP Public Schools, another charter network with schools in Oakland, has also signed onto the petition. At KIPP Bridge Academy, a K-8 school in West Oakland, attendance rates have seen similar declines.

“Right now we are down about 6% from what we would be projected at, and that’s like $200-$300,000,” said Andre Haughton, the principal of KIPP Bridge Academy’s upper school. “How can we continue to give the academic programs that our kids deserve and that they need with a loss like that? It’s difficult to wrap my head around.”