Brown’s school finance reform has the right intent but major flaws
February 10, 2013 | By Bob Blattner / commentary | 5 Comments
Fresh on the heels of having saved – at least for now – California’s public education system through passage of his Proposition 30, Governor Jerry Brown is rededicating himself to the task of tearing down and redesigning the twisted maze that currently serves as the K-12 funding system. This is a wonderful goal, but enthusiasm for the general concept may unfortunately be blinding proponents to the specific, significant flaws in the administration’s proposal.
Although the “Local Control Funding Formula” consumes the 165 pages of education budget trailer bill, the funding system at its heart has only three essential components:
- A “base grant” funding level generated by every student, intended to cover the costs of a standard education;
- A “supplemental grant” providing an additional 35 percent above base funding in response to the additional needs of students who are from low-income or foster homes, or are English learners;
- A “concentration grant” augmenting supplemental grant funding by up to 50 percent in school districts where more than half of the enrollment is eligible for supplemental grants.
And there are three major defects, as well.
- The funding levels being proposed have no relationship to what is actually needed to provide the education that the state demands and the people expect.
- The proposal appropriately gives high-needs students additional funding, but it would do so unequally, creating new disparities that this reform was supposed to eliminate.
- Finally, while many of the current system’s flaws are eliminated under the administration’s proposal, two of the most costly and indefensible inequities of the status quo are being grandfathered into the new model.
The most egregious flaw is the first – that the funding levels being proposed have nothing to do with what it takes to actually deliver an adequate education. This would be less of a problem if the funding level erred on the high side. However, under this proposal, hundreds of districts barely make it back to their 2007-08 funding levels in real dollars, if they get there at all.
The proposal claims to be restoring basic school funding levels for core programs serving all students at 2007-08 levels, but it actually eliminates about $2 billion in funding for basic educational necessities: money to buy textbooks, train teachers, repair buildings, stock libraries, hire counselors, hold smaller classes in high school. While some districts with large numbers of high-needs students will get this money back as supplemental aid, districts without those students will forever lose funding for fundamental services to which all students are entitled. That is not fair. And it’s not as if 2007-08 funding levels were adequate; only from the vantage point of the Great Recession do they appear generous. In fact, funding was so clearly deficient in 2007 that a lawsuit was already well under way challenging, on constitutional grounds, the adequacy of California’s financial support for public schools.
The target now being proposed by the administration for providing a core academic program – the base grant – averages in the neighborhood of $7,000 per student, far below the sufficiency level suggested by empirical research or by the practices of other economically advanced states, which routinely outspend California by 50 percent or more. It makes no sense to design a new funding model from the ground up and incorporate from the start an inadequate funding target.
Some will argue that it’s irresponsible to target a level of funding beyond our current ability to pay. But there isn’t even enough money to fund the proposal the governor has put on the table; it will take an estimated seven years of revenue growth before his plan is realized. So why not incorporate a goal that at least targets an adequate funding level, instead of backing into a number that is indefensibly insufficient?
The second defect has to do with how funding for high-needs students is distributed because of the “concentration grant.” No one disagrees with Brown, when he quotes Aristotle – “Equal treatment of unequals is not justice” – and that some students require additional resources to meet the special challenges they face. The problem with this particular proposal, however, is that it doesn’t treat these high-needs children the same. Even if they come from identical backgrounds and attend similar schools, some would get 50 percent more than others in “supplemental” funding – a gap of more than $1,200 per student – based on the school district they attend.
The rationale behind this unequal support for similar students is the assumption that the challenges facing at-risk students increase when they are grouped with higher proportions of similar students. Opinions and research findings vary as to the incidence and the magnitude of this effect. What is irrefutable, however, is that it is far more costly to provide equivalent remedial services to low-income students who make up only a small fraction of a school’s total student population. As an example, providing specialized training and equipment for a classroom teacher costs far more per student when only 25 percent of the class qualifies for additional funding for that purpose, as compared to another in which every child generates the additional funding.
If every child generated the same supplemental grant, the second classroom in this example, with four times as many eligible students, would receive four times as much as the first. It is difficult to defend the assumption that each child in that second classroom would also require a 50 percent bump in per-student funding levels. The governor ignores that the economies of scale almost certainly outweigh any additional costs required for classes with high concentrations of at-risk students.
The administration has tacitly acknowledged there are no hard numbers behind its concentration grant proposal, inasmuch as each of the three iterations floated to date have differed markedly. The most recent version, released last month, halves the effect of the concentration grant compared with prior versions. But just as turning down the volume doesn’t transform a bad song into a good song, reducing its impact doesn’t turn a bad policy into a good one. It just isn’t fair to give identical students from identical backgrounds funding supplements that vary by as much as 50 percent just because of the roll of the dice as to what school district they happen to attend.
Finally, the proposal’s choice to preserve two of the state’s largest and most notoriously inequitable categorical programs belies any claim to real reform. One of these programs, the “Targeted Instructional Improvement Grant,” sends out more than $850 million a year. But while some districts receive hundreds or even thousands of dollars per student, most – including some of the most impoverished districts in the state – receive $10 per student or less. Of the thousand or so school districts in the state, four account for about 70 percent of the funding.
Home-to-school transportation funding (busing) is almost as random, locked into funding levels that predate Proposition 13 and that have never been adjusted for enrollment growth since. Consequently, identical districts now have state funding rates differing by 10 times or more. These two programs, totaling about $1.5 billion in annual funding, have been called the “poster children” for everything wrong with the current system. Keeping them in place and withholding the revenue from redistribution on more equitable lines is not only unfair, but also counters the goal for any weighted student formula to be, in the words of Brown education adviser and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst, “simple, transparent, and easily understood.”
There is little doubt that these flaws – and others – in the governor’s proposal can be rectified, but only through a thorough and thoughtful analysis of what the proposal does, and doesn’t do, to meet the legitimate needs of all of California’s schoolchildren. While not necessarily easy, it is by no means impossible to quantify the costs of providing a core education program for all students, and remedial services for at-risk students, and the impact that various concentrations of such students have to this cost. It isn’t necessarily easy, but it is by no means impossible, to stand up to the political backlash from districts that profit under the status quo in order to institute an equitable new model free from the deficiencies of the old one.
All Californians owe it to today’s students and tomorrow’s to try and get it right. Because if we’ve learned anything from the current model, it’s that the only thing harder than getting it right at the start is fixing it down the road.
For the last 25 years, Bob Blattner has been actively involved in California public education policy, and is acknowledged as an expert in K-12 school finance. Before founding his own consulting and lobbying firm in 2006, he served as vice president of School Services of California, and before that as a reporter at the Sacramento Union, Education Beat (where he was founding editor), and the Sacramento Bee, where he was awarded CTA’s John Swett Award in 1989 for coverage of California education issues.