fbpx Skip to Main Content
Two Aspire students look at an assignment in class. Back shot of heads showing the paper and pencil and the students reviewing.

The Mercury News | Opinion: To better support California’s students, change our funding formula

By funding based on enrollment instead of attendance, we can increase resources to schools with the most vulnerable kids

Original article here.
By Mala Batra | CEO, Aspire Public Schools

June 26, 2024

Photo of Mala Batra CEO, Aspire Public Schools

There is no doubt: Kids are missing a lot of school. Nationally, over a quarter of public school students were chronically absent last year — up from about 15% before the pandemic.

Kids in California are no exception. Recent reporting by the Bay Area News Group said the average California student missed 14.6 school days last year.

This is happening for many reasons, including transportation and mental health issues. Perhaps most daunting is the idea that the pandemic altered society’s relationship with schooling, shifting attendance to be viewed as “optional.” We are already seeing the consequences.

The absenteeism increase has also illuminated an inequity in how California funds public schools. Our state’s schools lose about $3.6 billion annually because of student absences, this paper reported. This is because, currently, California funds schools based on the average number of students who attend school each day. That’s different from the number of students enrolled — for whom the school is responsible for educating. We’re one of only six states that still fund schools this way.

Students from low-income families — about 60% of students — are more likely to miss school. Kids who miss a lot of school often need support. Yet when they’re absent, the state does not offer support. Instead, it withholds money for their education. This means schools serving low-income students often wind up with less funding than more affluent schools, hindering educators’ ability to tend to students’ needs and improve academic outcomes. This is inequitable — but we have an opportunity to address it.

Our experience at Aspire Public Schools has taught us that countering chronic absenteeism requires a thoughtful, resource-intensive approach. We serve over 15,000 students, the vast majority of whom are experiencing poverty. We offer attendance incentives, transportation supports, direct outreach to families and mental health supports, to name a few. Those efforts are meaningful — our schools had an average chronic absenteeism rate of about 26% this year (nearly the same as the state’s), down from about 40% two years ago.

We are relentless in our pursuit because we care about our students, we value their presence in our community, and we know that they have to be in school to learn. But it’s a crisis that a quarter of students at Aspire — and statewide — are chronically absent. While hardworking educators will surely continue working to solve this problem, that will not fix the funding inequity under the surface.

California lawmakers should change how schools are funded to provide resources for the number of students schools are charged with serving. We’ve launched a campaign to help make that happen.

By funding based on student enrollment, we can increase resources for schools serving the most vulnerable kids. One report estimates that about 90% of districts would receive more funding under an enrollment-based formula. The biggest boost would happen in districts with high percentages of low-income, English learner and foster youth students.

Sen. Anthony Portantino’s Senate Bill 98, co-sponsored by State Superintendent Tony Thurmond, would require that the Legislative Analyst’s Office study what this funding change would mean and share findings by 2026. (Whether this would require a change to Proposition 98, the voter-approved initiative that sets minimum funding levels for K-12 schools, would likely be addressed in this study, offering legislators a helpful path.)

This bill, which passed out of the Assembly Education Committee unanimously June 12, would be a strong step in the right direction.

There will be costs associated with changing school funding. We recognize the complex budget situation policymakers face and appreciate that they must juggle competing priorities. But it counters California values to maintain such an inequity. And the costs of our children missing out on their education are far greater.

Every student deserves our support — they all have skills and gifts that should be nurtured. By shifting how our funding formula counts students, we allow resources to be more equitably targeted to students’ needs, including the support needed to attend class. We also send our students a message: You are valued, and your place in our community matters.

Mala Batra is CEO of Aspire Public Schools, a network of charter schools serving over 15,000 TK-12 students across 36 schools in historically underserved communities throughout California.