As Enrollments Decline, Lawmakers Ponder Changes to School Funding Formula

Suzanne Potter | California News Service
School districts that have suffered lower attendance and enrollment during the pandemic are looking to the state for help stabilizing their budgets going forward. Photo Credit: Wong Sze Fei / Adobestock

Leaders in education across the state are debating the merits of a bill to change the way schools in California are funded.

Senate Bill 830, introduced by State Superintendent of Schools Tony Thurmond, would stop the current system of funding schools based on average daily attendance (ADA) and count enrollment instead.

Erin Simon, assistant superintendent of school support services for the Long Beach Unified School District and president-elect of the Association of California School Administrators, said the current system penalizes low-income school districts where attendance is lower.

“Those districts are already receiving a lesser amount of money for a population that has more needs,” Simon asserted. “I think we need to do better.”

Experts attribute the lower attendance rates to things out of the districts’ control, in neighborhoods where families are dealing with a lack of transportation, or higher rates of asthma, and, more recently, COVID. California is one of only six states to use an attendance-based formula.

Carrie Hahnel, senior director of policy and strategy at the nonprofit Opportunity Institute in Berkeley, said the debate over how to fund schools ignores the bigger picture.

“Making a switch from ADA to enrollment is not a solution to the declining enrollment crisis,” Hahnel argued. “It could provide a short-term band-aid for some school districts that are really feeling the fiscal pain that comes with enrollment loss.”

The State Department of Finance projects a 9% decline in enrollment between now and 2031, a drop of half a million students, a phenomenon linked to the high cost of living in the Golden State.

Julien Lafortune, research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, said Los Angeles has been hit the hardest.

“(Los Angeles) County, for example, has seen a 12% drop over the last decade and actually projects an even larger decline, about 20%, over the next decade,” Lafortune observed.

He noted parts of the Central Valley, Bay Area and Sacramento Valley which saw growth in recent years are now projecting slight declines. Districts in the Sierras and northern Sacramento Valley are projecting modest increases in enrollment.