During the summer, four charter schools and a number of their prospective parents filed a lawsuit in the state Superior Court, Sacramento County, claiming that the state’s formula for funding K-12 schools during the pandemic will illegally deny payments for additional students in their schools and for students in public school districts that also have growing enrollments. Atkins v. State of California. Despite a modification of that budget provision that the state legislature adopted earlier this month, the plaintiffs say that they are planning to continue to pursue the case.
Until the coronavirus pandemic suddenly forced schools to close in March, the state had been funding schools based on students’ average daily attendance. Recognizing that many schools wouldn’t be able to keep in regular touch with students in the rough transition to remote learning, Governor Gavin Newsom by executive order guaranteed that charter schools and school districts would be reimbursed for the remaining months of school based on their pre-pandemic attendance rates.
Looking ahead to fall with predictions that surges in the pandemic could cause disruptive switches between distance learning and in-person instruction, Newsom and the Legislature agreed to protect schools from gyrations in attendance. In the new state budget, they extended the 2019-20 attendance rates another year, to 2020-21.
This hold harmless provision will shield districts with declining enrollment from financial loss, but will hurt growing districts and charter schools, a number of which had approval to open new schools and enroll large numbers of students in the fall, with the expectation of full funding.
To deal with this situation, the legislature recently passed Senate Bill 820, which will allow many schools with rising enrollments to claim higher levels of funding than they did last school year. The Atkins case plaintiffs are concerned, however, that SB 820 will only fund growing schools based on either their projected enrollment or their actual enrollment — whichever is lower. Those charter schools that have, in fact, accepted more students this year than they had projected last spring will not receive per pupil funds for their full enrollment. State officials have asserted, however, that, facing projected multibillion-dollar budget shortfalls, the state doesn’t have the money to both hold shrinking districts harmless and ensure all growing schools will be made whole.