A call for participative budgeting in education

By Jesus Sanchez and Marianela Rodriguez of Gente Organizada

While many families in Pomona, Calif. have been trying to take advantage of the last days of summer break, parent leaders from Padres Unidos de Pomona, a community group made up of parents who advocate on behalf of their children in the Pomona Unified School District (PUSD), attended a presentation on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the federal education policy that replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

As members of Padres Unidos de Pomona entered the dA Center for the Arts in downtown Pomona for the presentation, they were greeted by organizers from Gente Organizada (Gente), a Pomona-based nonprofit that facilitates community action by connecting individuals to the knowledge and tools they need to become effective agents of change. Gente Organizada partnered with Padres Unidos de Pomona and UnidosUS (formerly NCLR) for a presentation where parents could learn about the State of California’s progress on finalizing a plan to comply with ESSA, which will affect their children’s education.

ESSA provides all states with more flexibility to define their academic standards, including how to hold schools accountable for the success of all children in the state.

However, initial drafts of California’s state plan have left many questions unanswered. How will the state measure the progress of at-risk students? What will the state do to support schools with a history of poor academic performance? How will the state define an ineffective teacher? And lastly, what will support for English Language Learner (ELL) children look like?

We need a more transparent and democratic budget process

PUSD is currently reclassifying ELL children as English proficient at a rate of 17.6%, a reclassification rate that has declined significantly according to the State Department of Education.

However, state funds that reach the district for these students have actually increased and will continue to increase over the next couple of years as part of the state’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). The new funding formula sent roughly $36 million in supplemental dollars to PUSD, supplemental funds that are earmarked for ELLs, low-income, and foster children in the district.

This top-down approach to funding motivated Padres Unidos de Pomona to launch a campaign in November 2016 to create a more transparent and democratic budget process. Since launching their campaign, they have found that only $6 million of the $36 million dollars reaches school site councils, which appoint local leaders who make decisions on how to use the funds. The $6 million is also divided up amongst roughly 40 school site councils, while the other $30 million is under the direct control of district leaders who are more removed from the community. The parent leaders also discovered that these supplemental funds are not accounted for separately from the district general fund, which is the reason they suspect the district has not been able to provide them with the performance data they have been requesting since February 2017—performance data that should track the progress of ELLs and evaluate the investment of tax dollars.

Parent leaders believe the district needs to honor the intent of LCFF by empowering local leaders as decision makers when it comes to utilizing these funds. A participative budget process could prevent what some parents cite as an overinvestment in technology programs in PUSD, especially when it comes to serving ELL children. Parent leaders mentioned that families are not able to utilize some new programs rolled out by the PUSD due to the lack of computers at home and the high price of internet services.

However, during the presentation, additional questions remained for the parent leaders in attendance. As they filled out their ESSA comment cards that were to be sent to the state, they grappled with such questions as: how can ESSA help parent leaders create better accountability and transparency in PUSD? And, how does a district receive more resources to serve a specific population of students and see their performance decline? Both Padres Unidos de Pomona and Gente Organizada believe that PUSD must start addressing these questions by clearly defining its goals and measures for at-risk students, tracking supplemental funds separately from the general fund to ensure direct impact, and by championing local control when it comes to budget decisions.