Students at Esperanza Elementary School in Oakland take a break from their studies on the playground. (Ana Tintocalis/KQED)
Students at Esperanza Elementary School in Oakland take a break from their studies on the playground. (Ana Tintocalis/KQED)

Sacramento is finally giving back to school districts after years of slashing their budgets.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s new education funding formula sets aside additional funding to districts that serve large numbers of at-risk students. In addition, the system requires school boards and communities — not state lawmakers — to figure out how to spend the extra funding. The goal is get better results for the state’s most at-risk students.

The situation is now forcing parents, teachers and principals to find common ground on how to best educate these kids. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Oakland Unified School District, which stands to get an additional $2,000 per student once the funding formula is fully implemented.

Everyone in the district has an idea of how to spend the money.

Oakland Education Association President Trish Gorham says if the district wants to keep talented educators, it needs to spend the money on teachers’ salaries.

“Over the last 10 years, (teachers) have gotten a total of three and a half percent (salary) increase,” Gorham said. “That is not equity. That is not providing stability.”

Advocates for Oakland’s African-American students say new education dollars should be spent on teacher training. Chris Chatmon, executive director of the district’s African American Male Achievement Initiative, says research shows culturally sensitive teachers help students of color succeed.

“(African-American students need) positive, caring adults in their life that are going to see the beauty, the brilliance in them and the potential in them,” Chatmon said.

Groups of Spanish-speaking immigrant parents in Oakland Unified have a different idea altogether. Maria Holguin is a mother who believes school officials need to spend the money on programs once the school day is over. Holguin says many immigrant parents work two jobs and don’t speak enough English to help their kids learn.

“Our children really need after-school programs to help them with their homework and to give them tutoring in reading and math,” Holguin said.

Caught in the middle of all these competing interests: Oakland’s seven elected school board members. James Harris, one of three new trustees, represents schools that have the highest number of at-risk students in the district. He welcomes the new spending pressure which has resulted from the Governor’s new funding formula, but says the district needs to be strategic in how it will spend the additional revenue.

“There is this temptation to just look at it like new money,” Harris said. “(The board) is saying ‘No.’ Let’s figure out how we can rethink the way we’re doing this to deliver better outcomes.”

California is not the first state to channel money in this way. Most states have a weighted student funding formula. The method has produced significant academic results in states like New York. But there are mixed results in others states like Illinois.

However, most educators in California agree the state’s education finance system had to change.

California State School Board President Michael Kirst has been pushing for an overhaul. He admits there will be more squabbles within local school communities as parents, educators and school trustees determine which strategies should be funded. However, Kirst is confident local school boards will make better decisions than Sacramento lawmakers.

“The local boards will be more politicized because the state was specifying over a third of their (state funding),” Kirst said. “Now (school board trustees) will have to catch the flak for what they are doing more.”

Under the new system, school boards will also be required to rely on parent groups at each school to shape and build strategies. Kirst says now parents should also have a bigger say in their child’s education.

“Parents and other people can get to their local school board. Only a handful of lobbyists get to Sacramento. So we really see this as a way to get more people involved and that is good,” Kirst says.

At Esperanza Elementary School in Oakland, principal Wesley Jaques says local control will help his students, most of whom speak English as a second language. Jaques says student success at this school hinges on what is also happening at a child’s home.

“We’ve had families deported. We have families dealing with violence. We’ve had family members killed. … Additional funding will help, but the way we use it is really critical,” Jaques said.

Oakland school board member James Harris agrees.

He says the board’s challenge will be convincing competing community groups that any spending decision has to benefit all at-risk kids.

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