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.