Opinion > Commentary

Brown's new funding formula should be just the first step


Seth Rosenblatt

Seth Rosenblatt

I want to like the governor’s proposal — I really do. Governor Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula is certainly the first sign of real and meaningful education finance reform in decades. As a very active voice decrying our dysfunctional system, I should be jumping for joy right now, shouldn’t I? The governor absolutely needs to be commended for his political courage and vision to change this system, and the notion of directing more money to districts with higher needs is spot on. And folks who are more politically savvy than I in the ways of Sacramento tell me this is the best chance we’ll have to make these changes. So, what’s the problem?

To be clear, I have always argued that communities with economically disadvantaged students and English-language learners should get more funding, and if anything the weights in Gov. Brown’s LCFF probably aren’t nearly enough to compensate for the inherent challenges in educating certain populations. However, I have also argued that adding universal preschool would go a long way toward leveling the field for our students, and ironically may even be more powerful—and maybe even cheaper in the long run—than compensating districts in later grades for more challenged populations. Despite the recent attention this issue has been getting (not unrelated to the president’s call for expanded preschool), this issue seems to be mostly absent in this conversation at the state level about education finance reform despite its clear linkage.

The LCFF also presents some very practical challenges for districts such as my own. Ours, like 90 percent of districts in the state, is a Revenue Limit district, meaning that its funding is essentially dictated by the state, but we live in a high cost-of-living area with a middle-upper income population. So, properly, we’re on the low end of this weighted formula, but that hardly accounts for what it really takes to educate our children. For example, the most obvious “weight” missing in the LCFF formula is regional cost of living. Ultimately, it’s not the inputs (e.g., money) that matter but rather the outputs—what you can do with money. We must pay teachers a higher amount than most other places in the state or else they wouldn’t even be able to afford to live within a commuting distance! So, the same dollar does not buy the same teacher (or administrator, or counselor, or librarian, etc.) across the state. I’ve discussed this issue with a number of our state representatives who generally agree that although this is an honest intellectual argument, it’s a dead political one. No one is going to stand up and advocate to give more money to “rich” districts despite the truism that some places get more for their dollar than others. Although this issue is a challenge for my district, it also affects the number of economically disadvantaged communities within our county that still suffer from the same relative high cost-of-living pressures. Although they will gain from the “weights” in the LCFF compared to a district like mine, they will still lose out compared to similar districts in other counties.

One potential political “compromise” here is the lowering of the parcel tax threshold to 55%. SCA 3 would place a measure on the ballot, which if approved by voters would lower the threshold to pass a school parcel tax from the current two-thirds required. Although I am a supporter of doing this in any case (as the 2/3 requirement has been particularly onerous, and lowering it will allow more communities to help fund themselves), its passage would act as a bit of a counterweight to the inherent bias in the current LCFF formula against districts in higher cost-of-living areas—many of these (although not all) have demonstrated an increased capacity to tax themselves to compensate.

The next big issue is the definition of LCFF’s “hold harmless” concept (the promise that no district will lose money versus what it gets today). Of course the LCFF is a major improvement over last year’s Weighted Student Formula, which would have actually taken base money away from districts (including mine), but the hold harmless provision still misses two key points. First, we will still be losing some streams of “categorical” money that we received in the past and which, in our case, won’t be made up by the new LCFF weights. Second, many revenue limit districts are funded at a rate 20 percent below what they were pre-recession. And California wasn’t exactly funding our schools well even at that time. So, the promise to hold us flat at our current lower level is cold comfort. According to our preliminary calculations, our district will crawl back to its pre-recession funding level once the formula is fully implemented (assuming state revenue projections hold up). This is consistent with the governor’s plan to take seven more years to bring districts back to their 2007-08 funding levels, but this means it effectively will have taken over a decade—more than an entire generation of students in our K-8 district—just to return to the modest level of funding we had before. The obvious alternative—as discussed in the interview with Assembly Chair Joan Buchanan in EdSource Today back in November—is to first restore all districts to pre-recession levels before implementing the weighted formula. But of course this would cost a lot more money and would delay relative funding for those districts most in need.

Lastly, we have an expectation-setting problem. Each of our local communities (and our employees) may have greater expectations than reality will bear out. On a statewide level, just like the passage of Proposition 30 last November, LCFF implementation runs the risk that it will give many the erroneous assumption that we have now “fixed” the problem. It’s a major step in righting the ship, and I continue to applaud the efforts. But unless we recognize that it is just a first step, California will continue to systematically underfund public education and shortchange our future…we will have just spread around the misfortune a little more rationally.

•••

Seth Rosenblatt is a member of the Governing Board of the San Carlos School District. He also serves as the president of the San Mateo County School Boards Association and sits on the Executive Committee of the Joint Venture Silicon Valley Sustainable Schools Task Force. He has two children in San Carlos public schools. He writes frequently on issues in public education, including in both regional and national publications as well as on his own blog.

Filed under: Commentary, Local Control Funding Formula, School Finance

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11 Responses to “Brown's new funding formula should be just the first step”

  1. Mark said

    on February 26, 2013 at 8:49 am

    I agree with Mr.Rosenblatt, Brown’s proposal completely ignores suburban districts and other higher cost districts. Most school districts currently do not have enough funding, Brown wants to leave 30-40% of districts behind by funding them at $7,000 per student compared to $12,000 for other districts, yet $7,000 per pupil will not provide a proper education for the students in those districts. The majority of citizens that pay taxes should oppose this plan, it’s simply not fair.

  2. el said

    on February 26, 2013 at 10:43 am

    Once again, I find myself in substantial agreement with Seth’s essay.

    This is an big improvement over last year’s proposal, but fundamentally, the problem is that the base per student amount is still too low. I appreciate budgetary realities, but perhaps a small bone that can be thrown would be some sort of acknowledgement or calculation of what that base value SHOULD be, so that every person is aware of the underfunding and where we need to get.

    I’ve thought about Seth’s commentary with respect to regional cost of living, and I’ve struggled with that concept for a while. I’m not sure how you would work it out – because while it’s true that in the urban areas, there are substantially higher costs of living, it’s also true that in the rural areas that there are unique costs – more costs for transportation, less access to libraries, no alternative transit, fewer community resources. I’m not sure how you would account cleanly for all those variations. All I know is that all the schools still are going to need more to adequately fund the needs that they see.

  3. navigio said

    on February 26, 2013 at 11:13 am

    And then there is the requisite irony. :-)

    A progressive tax and the way public education is funded in CA create a dynamic where the wealthy are the lions share of the source for school funding. Although it might be politically dead to argue the fairness of creating a (relatively speaking) robin-hood fix, that fact will not go away in the legislative process. The push for vouchers is a result of that. As are the cries of ‘double-payment’ by some private school goers. I think the funding discrepancy has to take into account this dynamic lest it create a reactionary alternative that ends up being even worse for public schools.

    I also agree with the other comments that we should not be working from budget to need rather from need to budget. But of course, people have been saying that forever. I’m not convinced we’ll ever define what it takes up front. Part of that is political will, and part may be that we simply don’t know. Personally, I think teachers understand that best. Maybe we should be paying more attention to them?

  4. Brian Stephens said

    on February 26, 2013 at 11:42 am

    As the superintendent of a district that would benefit from the LCFF it is easy to endore the Governor Brown’s proposal. The fundamental question that the LCFF does not address is the chronic lack of funding for schools in our state when compared to other states. The move towards the Common Core will allow us to really get a clear picture of how students in our state compare to students in another state. While the information will be good it cannot take into account that other states spend much more on a child’s education than does California and it is our state that has the most diversified student population in the nation. Yes, the LCFF will be good for schools but it cannot be seen as the final solution to the inadequate funding for education in our state.

  5. Eric Premack said

    on February 26, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    The LCFF proposal could be improved by incorporating more funding into the base rates. This should include funding from the notorious Home-To-School Transportation and Targeted Instructional Improvement Grant programs. It could also throttle back the proposed supplemental weights for English learners and low income students to more reasonable levels while eliminating the massive concentration bonuses. The state should also eliminate the ridiculous subsidies for so-called “necessary small” schools (which are often neither) and reallocate excess taxes from rich basic aid districts. If so, the formula would allow for restoration of more of the eroded base funding while providing ample funding to provide additional services to needy kids.

    I’m not at all buying the notion that the state should provide higher funding for allegedly high-cost areas. Nearly everyone in California thinks their part of the state deserves more funding. I hear the same complaints where I live in a rural/small town environment, with complaints about $4.75/gallon gas, expensive propane heat, pricey groceries, off-the-chart health benefits costs due to lack of HMO competition, and the like.

  6. el said

    on February 26, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    So here’s an interesting concern.

    Because of the disadvantage and concentration being expressed as a percentage, it means that increasing the base level reflects there also. I think that while these numbers could conceivably be right for this base level, if that’s where we are, if we wanted to raise the base per student to say $10,000, the concentration percentage might make raising the base financially impossible. Would we be able, in the future, to dial the percentages back if the base increased and it seemed appropriate?

    I am just still uncomfortable with the way the base and the percentages have been pulled out of thin air, without specific justifications.

    • navigio replied

      on February 26, 2013 at 4:11 pm

      I agree. A justification would be nice (im sure there is some of that, while also some political ‘expediency’).

      I find the idea of a threshold dismaying. Any time you have that, districts do ‘funky’ things to make it to that threshold if they are near it (or maintain it if they are close to falling below it). The hit could really be catastrophic from the stability standpoint, and the need probably doesnt change a whole lot between the threshold and one percentage point under it. There should be something more like a function-based mapping, but that might require even more justification. :-P

  7. Bea said

    on February 27, 2013 at 8:33 am

    @navigio, totally agree about the unintended consequences of the threshold. Revenue limit funds are provided on a per student basis. I don’t see why weighted funding couldn’t be applied the same way. If you have a high concentration of high needs students, you’re going to get more funding on a smooth curve. Is there any evidence that the threshold/concentration approach is justified?

  8. navigio said

    on April 6, 2013 at 8:21 pm

    Calling John Mockler. We need a bat signal for you.

    I have a question. I am starting to see recognition of the existence of LCFF within the general community and along with this recognition is the belief that without LCFF, districts would get ‘less money’. But there seem to be a few ‘caveats’ here. First one is that during the prop 30 debate, the claim was that funding would increase for schools anyway. While the gov has a website that talks about how the LCFF funding would progress, it does not compare it to how just traditional funding would have continued (both with and without prop 30).

    Clearly, the flexing of the categoricals brings some money into that base amount, but the LCFF amounts (with the extras) seem to exceed that amount by a lot. Is that part of the standard prop 30 increase, or something else? (obviously this will differ by district demographics).

    The other question is what the impact of LCFF will be on the prop 98 guarantee. If this new funding is considered part of the prop 98 guarantee (it seems it would have to be) then I see that having two effects, one is positive in that it increases that guarantee significantly moving forward, but the other is that it takes away from other, existing and otherwise additional funding to do so (partially or completely). In other words, in some cases it may just be alternative ways to name the same money.

    Lastly, I am already hearing talk that this additional funding would help avert some severe budget cuts that are otherwise pretty traditional (ie not targeted necessarily at ELL or low income kids exclusively, though they obviously benefit from those things as well). It will be interesting to see whether some of the supposed checks will keep that from happening, or whether this will just be a nice, new influx to the general fund unrestricted column.

    Holy balance sheets, Batman! The bat signal is on!

    • navigio replied

      on April 9, 2013 at 11:24 am

      Ok, I guess I have to try myself. Not enough clouds in the sky for the bat signal..

      I found Mockler’s analysis of prop 30, which estimated that as a result of its passage the per pupil prop 98 guarantee would increase from $7133/pupil in 11-12 to $10148/pupil in 15-16. Thats an increase of over $3000/pupil. (even without prop 30 it would have increased by nearly $1500/pupil). In contrast, Brown claims LCFF will increase per pupil spending by about $2700 in its first 5 years.

      I tell you, our Governor is a genius.. or at least we make him look like one..

      • el replied

        on April 9, 2013 at 4:12 pm

        D’oh. Thanks for that little reality check, navigio.

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