Brown's new funding formula should be just the first step
February 25, 2013 | By Seth Rosenblatt / commentary | 11 Comments
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.