At the tender age of 5, Samaiya Atkins and her father Marcus Atkins have high hopes and dreams for a high-quality, public education. When Mr. Atkins realized his daughter could get that level of rigor at a new school with an established reputation for developing high-performing scholars just a few blocks away from their home in the Meadowview community of Sacramento, he was ecstatic and quickly signed Samaiya up for Tecoy Porter College Prep.
Meadowview is the community where Stephon Clark, an unarmed Black man was shot and killed by the Sacramento police in his grandmother’s backyard giving rise to local and national protests. Fostering hope out of tragedy, Black community leaders built Tecoy Porter College Prep, a new college-prep charter school for students grades K-5 — just yards away from where Clark was killed — and named the playground in his memory at a groundbreaking on February 4, 2020 with his family. “I want them to know Stephon is a part of Sacramento history,” said his brother, Stevante Clark. “The remembrance of Stephon is what we want the kids to keep in their hearts and in their minds.”
Sacramento native, Dr. Margaret Fortune is an officer of California State NAN, a modern civil rights organization that is Rev. Al Sharpton’s affiliate in the Golden State. Dr. Fortune raised $12 million to build the sprawling public elementary school campus, creating new opportunities for children in Meadowview — children like kindergartner Samaiya Atkins. In addition to the Stephon Clark Playground, the facility includes a music room, yoga studio, and an art makerspace for kids. Dr. Fortune, who is African American, has founded four of the highest performing, majority-Black public schools in California. She is credited with closing the Black achievement gap in mathematics in her schools. Dr. Fortune insisted that construction be completed on-time at the new Meadowview campus, even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Things would be looking up in Meadowview, but there is cause for concern since the California Legislature and Governor Gavin Newsom voted for and signed SB 98, a budget bill that profoundly harms schools with growing enrollment, including an estimated 3,500 traditional public schools and more than 450 public charter schools throughout the state. California has always guaranteed funding for each student’s education, but this decision means the state will instead withhold more than $542 million from more than 52,000 students like Samaiya statewide.
Critics say SB 98 was designed by school employee unions and big city school districts to keep taxpayer dollars in declining school systems protecting jobs and pensions, even after the students have left the district. More than 38,000 parents have signed petitions opposing the new school funding law which parent advocates and civil rights groups say kneecaps California’s longstanding policy of the money following the child to the school where they are enrolled.
“This seems like a way for the education establishment to use the pandemic as an excuse to undercut education alternatives, like charter schools,” said Joette Spencer-Campbell, education chair of the San Bernardino NAACP. “It’s also an attack on a parent’s right to pick their child’s school,” continued Spencer-Campbell, a grandmother. “The Governor and the Legislature are basically telling a parent who moves their family to a more affordable region of California like the Inland Empire or the Central Valley, ‘Sure, you can buy a house but you get nothing from the state to fund your child’s public education.’ How is that constitutional? If the state has money to fund phantom kids, then they certainly have the money to fund actual live ones,” she added.
Families with children at four growing public school systems across the state say it’s not constitutional and filed a lawsuit against the State of California and Governor Gavin Newsom, among others last month. The lawsuit, Samaiya Atkins v. State of California, challenges the constitutionality of the state budget deal signed into law through SB 98. “We are fighting the same battles Blacks have always had; the fight for equity,” said Mr. Atkins, a plaintiff in the lawsuit that bears his daughter’s name. There are 18 other plaintiffs in the lawsuit, four of whom are Black girls: Nailah DuBose, Aniyah DuBose, Jael Allen-Pearson and Samaiya Atkins.
“The state’s actions violate the constitutional right of my students to a free and equitable public education and our political leaders need to take immediate action to fix this situation,” said Dr. Fortune, president of Fortune School, where five of the student plaintiffs are enrolled. “Our school community is over 90 percent Black and Latino and 82 percent low-income. Defunding these children’s education and calling it equity is a slap in the face to their parents who have chosen their child’s school for a good reason. State funding should follow the child to the school that is educating them. That’s what’s fair and right.”
In June, Assemblymember Dr. Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), a longtime education advocate and chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, commented on SB 98 on the Assembly floor saying, “We’ve left out some very important people in the process … It is painful to me to have any child not actually funded. I know there are some really wonderful schools that are working very hard and have attracted students to those schools and will not get the funding to move forward. We have to prioritize them when it comes to August and September.”
“This decision casts a shadow over our community,” said Pastor Tecoy Porter, after whom the Sacramento school is named. “I’m disappointed in Democratic legislative leadership, including Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Los Angeles) and Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) and the budget committee chairs such as Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), who claim to be defenders of equity for all but have completely defunded the education of every child in this school,” continued Dr. Porter, a Democrat. It’s not often that the Black community can muster the resources to build schools to lift up a community in trauma.”
Taisha Brown, Chairwoman of the California Democratic Party, African American Caucus, wrote a letter to democratic leaders Rendon, Atkins, McCarty, Phil Ting, Holly Mitchell and Richard Roth and urged them to reverse the negative impact SB 98 will have on Black children. She said it is “untenable” that school funding will not follow children to the schools where they are actually being educated.
“I urge you to pay attention to the lawsuit brought by Black girls, Samiya Atkins v. State of California which asserts that children have a constitutional right to a free and equitable public education. That is true for all Black children in California, no matter what type of public school their parents have chosen for them, including public charter schools,” Brown wrote. “I want to encourage you not to make the mistake of eroding the high quality education programs that exist for Black children who we know already struggle mightily in our public school system. Fix SB 98 so the money follows the child. That’s what’s fair and equitable.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Families with children at the four growing public school organizations across the state have launched a new coalition called Fund All Kids (www.fundallkids.org), and an online petition to send to legislators urging them to reverse SB 98. To send a letter to the legislature, click here for more information.