SACRAMENTO, Calif. — This story was originally published by CalMatters.
Black students’ standardized test scores and graduation rates have long trailed those of their white and Asian peers. For decades, educators and legislators have tried to close that achievement gap, and a school funding proposal in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new budget illustrates just how difficult it is to do .
The idea for the proposed funding began as a bill authored last year by Assemblymember Akilah Weber, a Democrat from La Mesa, that would have provided more money for Black K-12 students. The bill made it through both the Assembly and Senate with unanimous support. While Newsom never vetoed the bill, he ultimately refused to sign it. Weber agreed to drop the bill when the governor promised to include the funding in his proposed budget for the next fiscal year.
But after Newsom released his budget earlier this month, some advocates who supported Weber’s bill say the governor’s proposal falls short. Driven by concerns the bill would violate state and federal laws banning preferential treatment of specific racial or ethnic groups, the governor’s office directed the funding to high-poverty schools rather than Black students specifically.
Some advocates say the proposed school funding in the budget waters down the intent of the bill and will perpetuate the achievement gap for Black students.
According to a CalMatters analysis, less than 26% of Black students in California attend a school that would qualify for the $300 million proposed in Newsom’s budget.
Margaret Fortune is president and CEO of the charter school organization Fortune School of Education and was one of the lead sponsors of the bill. She said the proposal does not reflect the intentions of Weber’s bill.
“It sounds good, but it doesn’t actually get to the students who need the help,” she said. “This is an apple, and what we wanted was an orange.”
But the bill wasn’t just about race. Weber’s AB 2774 would have given additional funding to school districts and charter schools for the student group with the lowest standardized test scores statewide. In 2022, that group was Black students. Statewide, 30% of Black students met or exceeded standards in English language arts and 16% met or exceeded standards in math in the 2021-22 school year. For white students, those percentages were 61% for English language arts and 48% for math.
Test scores dropped slightly for all students during the pandemic, and the achievement gap persisted. In the spring of 2019, the last year of standardized testing before the pandemic shutdown, 33% of Black students met or exceeded English language arts standards and 21% met or exceeded math standards. Among white students, 66% and 54%, respectively, met or exceeded standards.
Supporters of Weber’s bill said it would have helped Black students — as the lowest-performing group on state standardized test scores — improve academically. At the same time, the legislation would have used test scores to ensure the funding was producing results. Once Black students’ scores were no longer the lowest, the next group with the lowest test scores would qualify for the additional funding.
“If after one or two years those students were progressing, it could be any other student group that could be considered,” said Christina Laster, an educational advisor for Al Sharpton’s National Action Network and a co-sponsor of the bill.
Some experts say that while elected officials and policymakers are quick to identify the racial achievement gaps, they lack the political will to target Black students with extra resources.
“I think we’re really afraid to have hard conversations and subsequent legislation around race and how we achieve racial justice in education,” said Tyrone Howard, an education professor at UCLA. “I don’t think you can take 245 years of slavery and Jim Crow and a legacy of separate and unequal education and expect this gap to not exist.”
Weber’s bill isn’t a new idea. Her mother, former Assemblymember and current Secretary of State Shirley Weber, authored nearly identical bills in 2018, 2019 and 2020. None of them made it out of the state Assembly. In 2018, Newsom made a similar deal with Shirley Weber by including $300 million in one-time funding for the state’s lowest-performing students. That funding applied to all students regardless of race to avoid a potential legal conflict.
But some experts and advocates say race-blind solutions won’t close the achievement gap for Black students.
“When the lowest-performing groups do better, that benefits students across the state,” Howard said. “I think the governor got it wrong here.”
Tweaking the Local Control Funding Formula
California funds its K-12 public schools through the Local Control Funding Formula, a system enacted in 2013. The formula gives more money to districts serving higher percentages of high-needs students — English learners, foster children and students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals.
The intent is equity over equality: more resources for students who need them most. And while research shows that the Local Control Funding Formula has helped close gaps in graduation rates, college readiness and test scores, some advocates and legislators have said the state needs to increase accountability over how districts spend the money.
In 2015, the ACLU sued the Los Angeles Unified School District for failing to spend the money generated by English learners, foster children and low-income students on services for those groups. In 2021, the California Department of Education found that three school districts in San Bernardino County misused funds for high-needs students.
Weber’s bill would have added the subgroup with the lowest standardized test scores to the three student groups specified in the funding formula. Subgroups of students, like students with disabilities, that already qualify districts for additional state and federal funding would not qualify. That left racial and ethnic groups as the remaining categories.
This year, the bill would have allocated $400 million to districts and charter schools for their Black students.
The “equity multiplier”
In Newsom’s proposed budget, Weber’s bill became the “equity multiplier.” The proposal allocates $300 million for elementary and middle schools where at least 90% of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. For high schools, that percentage is 85%.
Unlike funding formula money that goes to districts, the dollars from the equity multiplier will go directly to schools and the rules will be stricter about where the money can be spent.
Brooks Allen, an education policy advisor for Newsom and the executive director of the State Board of Education, said Weber’s bill was a “launching pad.” He pointed out Weber’s bill didn’t include any requirements for districts on spending the money. He said Newsom’s proposal will have more accountability measures to make sure schools spend the money on the students with the highest needs. Newsom and his advisors are still working on those details.
Weber’s offices provided little comment about Newsom’s proposal. When asked if Weber was disappointed by it, her chief-of-staff, Tiffany Ryan, wrote in an email only that the “equity multiplier” is a “step in the right direction.”
It’s unclear how the state will allocate the $300 million to the qualifying schools. Those details will be released in the education trailer bill that comes out later this year, state officials said. The trailer bill will describe the specific education programs that will receive money through the state budget.
Potential legal problems
Weber’s office and the bill’s sponsors said Newsom raised concerns about violating the state’s Proposition 209 and the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The former prohibits preferential treatment of an racial or ethnic group and the latter guarantees equal protection for all citizens.
There’s no mention of these potential conflicts in any of the analyses of the bill. However, one analysis for Shirely Weber’s 2018 bill identifies a potential conflict with Prop. 209, stating the bill would “ultimately target an ethnic group for supplemental funding.”
Supporters of Akilah Weber’s bill say it doesn’t mention race but rather the group of students with the lowest test scores.
“It was never once a racial thing,” Laster said. “It’s about the category rather than who’s in the category.”
Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the issue remains unclear because no law has been adjudicated.
“The potential problem here is that among the available subgroups for test scores, many of them are race defined,” he said.
State officials declined to comment on the potential legal conflicts. Weber’s and Newsom’s offices didn’t provide full details about the back-room deal that led to the race-neutral budget proposal.
Assemblymember Lori Wilson, a Fairfield Democrat and chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, said Weber’s bill was a top priority for the caucus last year, and she’s pleased with the outcome.
“To get to where you want to be, it has to be an incremental approach,” Wilson said. “We do not look at it as a loss in any way, shape or form.”
A loss for some
Some California districts have seen success with programs that target Black students. At Fresno Unified, Lisa Mitchell oversees the African-American Academic Acceleration program. In 2017, the local school board started allocating $4 million to the program each year. This year, the program has an additional $2 million thanks to emergency COVID funds from the federal government.
The district used the money to hire teachers, tutors and counselors dedicated to increasing test scores and grades and decreasing suspension and expulsion rates for the district’s Black students. Between 2017 and 2019, the district’s Black students saw slight improvements in test scores, but those gains were wiped out during the pandemic. In 2022, less than 1 in 5 Black students met or exceeded English language arts standards and 1 in 10 met or exceeded math standards. Mitchell said the program could be doing more to train teachers as well as more training for parents to teach reading at home.
“We have a lot of great programs, but they’re not adequately staffed,” Mitchell said. It’s unclear exactly how much money the bill would have directed to the district, but she said it would have helped.
The acceleration program offers a 10-week after-school literacy program in the spring and a four-week program in the summer. The curriculum is based on African American authors. The district also offers a three-week coding bootcamp for fifth and sixth graders that also teaches students about the contributions of African American scientists. While most of the students in these programs are Black, Mitchell said the district doesn’t turn anyone away. The program also provides on-campus supervision and instruction for suspended students as well as coaching sessions for parents who want to teach reading at home.
Mitchell said the district hasn’t encountered threats of lawsuits or criticism based on Prop. 209 or the 14th Amendment. She said district administrators and community members generally support her work.
“I try to explain to people that equity and equality don’t mean the same thing,” Mitchell said. “Why do we give to Black students? Because Black students need the most help.”
Representatives from the governor’s office and the State Board of Education, however, said the $300 million for high-poverty schools will ultimately lead to greater equity.
“I understand sometimes folks are wed to their initial idea,” Allen said. “When folks have a chance to sit with this and study it, our hope is that they’ll see there’s a lot to like here.”
CalMatters reporter Erica Yee contributed to this story.