A Call for Participative Budgeting in Education By Jesus Sanchez and Marianela Rodriguez of Gente Organizada
It was a warm Monday morning in Downtown Pomona as members of Padres Unidos de Pomona packed into the dA Center for the Arts for a special presentation made possible by UnidosUS, formally the National Council of La Raza. The Pomona community group made up of parents, mostly mothers, advocate on behalf of their children in the Pomona Unified School District (PUSD). As members entered the art center they were greeted by organizers from Gente Organizada (Gente), a Pomona based non-profit that has partnered with both Padres Unidos and UnidosUS. Gente’s primary role is to act as a facilitator of community action by connecting individuals to the knowledge and tools they need to become effective agents of change within their own communities. While many Pomona families were taking advantage of the much needed summer break, these parent leaders were up, ready, and looking for any edge to ensure the academic futures of students in the district. The objective of the presentation was to introduce Padres Unidos members to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that replaced the No Child Left Behind Act. As the parent leaders jotted down their notes, they attentively listened to every detail of the presentation.
In the presentation parents learned that the State of California is currently in the process of finalizing a plan to comply with ESSA. The new federal policy will provide the state with more flexibility and allow California to define its own academic standards and accountability systems. However, initial drafts of the state plan still left many questions unanswered such as how the state will measure the success of at-risk students? What will the state do to intervene or 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) students look like? For Padres Unidos de Pomona, ESSA is still unclear but it also signals an opportunity for higher accountability in PUSD.
The Pomona Unified School District is currently reclassifying ELL students at a 17.6% rate, a reclassification rate that has declined significantly according to the State Department of Education. However, state funds that reach the district for these students has actually increased and will continue to increase over the next couple of years as part of the state Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). The new funding formula sent roughly $36 million in supplemental dollars to PUSD, supplemental funds that are earmarked for English Learners, low-income, and foster youth students in the district. 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 students. Parent leaders mentioned that families are not able to utilize some new programs rolled out by PUSD due to the lack of computers in homes and the high price of Internet services.
This top to bottom approach motivated Padres Unidos de Pomona to launch a campaign in November of 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 places local school leaders as the primary decision makers. However, that $6 million is divided up amongst roughly 40 school site councils and the other $30 million is under the direct control of district leaders. 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 English Language Learners and evaluate the investment of tax dollars.
As the presentation came to a close, the parents filled out their ESSA comment cards that were to be sent to the state and a conversation ensued. The dialogue between the parent leaders centered on the need to support English Language Learner students in the district and some unfortunate questions arose. How can ESSA help parent leaders create better accountability and transparency in the Pomona Unified School District? And, how does a district receive more resources to serve a specific population of students and see their performance decline? 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.