Resolving to transform our school finance system

Picture of Ted Lempert

Ted Lempert

Each new year brings the opportunity for a fresh start and renewed purpose. For many of us committed to improving student achievement and promoting excellence in all of California’s schools, our resolve in 2013 is aimed at finally reforming the state’s convoluted education finance system. Governor Jerry Brown wants to get this critical education reform done in 2013, giving us a historic opportunity to realize the equity, transparency and increased local control that the state’s education system sorely needs.

Discussions around this issue began last year when the governor presented a new finance model as part of his budget package. Although the general concept was lauded by many, the specific proposal did not advance and was tabled until after the November election. Much has changed since then: Most notably, the governor’s education policy and finance staff are spending a significant amount of time reworking the proposal to address issues that were raised last year and shared during stakeholder workshops held this fall. By all accounts, the governor’s 2013 proposal will be different and deserves fresh, full and fair consideration by all.

In fact, a number of organizations join Children Now in calling for the further development and adoption of a Weighted Student Formula concept in 2013, including the ACLU, California School Boards Association, Californians for Justice, Campaign for Quality Education, The Education Trust – West, EdVoice, MALDEF, New Schools Venture Fund, Parent Leadership Action Network, Public Advocates, Silicon Valley Leadership Group, United Ways of California, Youth Together, and many others. These groups were joined by leading superintendents, including Jon R. Gundry (Pasadena Unified), Vincent Matthews (San Jose Unified), Jonathan P. Raymond (Sacramento City Unified) and Tony Smith (Oakland Unified).

By all accounts, California’s school finance system—which determines the dollars that districts, schools and classrooms receive and how those dollars may be used—is unnecessarily complex, irrational and inequitable by any measure. In other words, it’s doing a remarkably poor job of matching resources with student needs and must be changed.

We believe it is time for California to move forward and implement education finance reform that fosters local control. For far too long we have evaluated and bemoaned the failings and inequities of the current funding system, and now we have a chance to fundamentally restructure it for the better. We must seize upon the opportunity presented by Gov. Brown’s commitment and begin working earnestly on designing a school finance system that removes the red tape and “command and control” at the state level and allows educators to meet the needs of their local students.

Implementing such a system can achieve equity, transparency and accountability for the children of California. But this will only happen if those of us engaged in the policy process remain at the table and commit to working through the difficult details that will need to be tackled to effectively restructure California’s dysfunctional funding system for schools and correct the inequities and complexities that exist.

We resolve to do all we can to make that happen in 2013, and hope that others will too.


Ted Lempert is the president of Children Now, the leading nonpartisan, multi-issue research, policy development, and advocacy organization dedicated to promoting children’s health and education in California, and the leader of The Children’s Movement of California.

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

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6 Responses to “Resolving to transform our school finance system”

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  1. Bob Harper on Jan 7, 2013 at 7:13 pm01/7/2013 7:13 pm

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    There has been strong resistence to the proposed WSF because it destabilizes school funding in the name of equity; all districts are underfunded by most measures and WSF pulls funding from some underresourced districts to fund categories of students in other underresourced districts. It makes underfunding more equitable. That’s not something to be applauded. It also makes substantive changes to the mission and law regarding public education, for example it allows local districts the power to decide if literacy training for adults is important or not. “Flexing” adult education funds that have served adults for 100 years in order to make up for the underfunding of education for children is a policy decision, is a values decision, that is presented in the guise of fiscal restructuring. “Local control” is a convenient way to describe how programs will be closed, and students turned away, at least in the case of adult education. Community Colleges receive no extra funding to serve these adults to be turned away, and so the parents in our most marginalized populations will not be helped to gain the literacy skills that correlate to their children’s success in schools. Not all “categorical” programs are supplemental to core services, some are the core services themselves. Let’s make it optional to offer first grade… that would save money, it’s just like the age students begin in Denmark, why NOT let local districts decide not to offer first grade. If real transformation of school funding is desired it needs to be accomplished with insightful scalpels, not ideological hammers.

  2. LTS on Jan 4, 2013 at 10:22 pm01/4/2013 10:22 pm

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    Can we also discuss reforming CA’s archaic attendance tracking system?

  3. Jeff Camp on Jan 4, 2013 at 5:13 pm01/4/2013 5:13 pm

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    The weighted approach to allocation of state dollars makes sense, but, as Mark points out, it is zero-sum. If you change the rules for allocating dollars without changing the total, by DEFINITION it will be a clear winners-and-losers exercise.

    The better approach would be non-zero-sum. Fold weighted student formula allocation of state dollars into a bigger deal that also lowers barriers local funding. (Such as the Tandem Bike approach ) Then the conversation is not only more likely to reach a conclusion, it also creates opportunities for a more equitable result.

    El, there is some precedent and research behind the 1.4 weight based on both bottom-up models and empirical examples. It may seem like a blunt instrument, but it’s at least better than the politically-driven status quo. The Getting Down To Facts research is the place to look for background on why 1.4 is the right number.


    • el on Jan 7, 2013 at 11:06 pm01/7/2013 11:06 pm

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      Jeff, thanks for the reply. I went back and reviewed the Getting Down to Facts document and could not find any particular rationale for the multiplier. Can you give me a page number and perhaps a relevant blockquote? Thanks.

  4. el on Jan 4, 2013 at 2:16 pm01/4/2013 2:16 pm

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    Fundamentally, I think we need to look at the problem from the other direction: how much should it and does it cost to educate a child who comes to school ready to learn? And then how much should it and does it cost to supplement kids who do not come to school ready to learn?

    The problem with the weighted student formula was that it proposed to take current funding and arbitrarily divide it such that we took the same funding X and the student count and just reallocated it so that we had

    (students in ordinary income schools) * Y + (students in low income schools) * 1.4 Y = (same pot of money)

    and then just solved for Y. Voilá, a new school finance plan to solve all our troubles! But there was no rational, supported basis for determining Y nor was there a rational basis for choosing 1.4.

  5. Mark on Jan 4, 2013 at 8:22 am01/4/2013 8:22 am

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    This will transform many academically mismanaged districts into Cadillac funded districts by taking away funds from average districts. The weights are too high. Some districts will struggle to provide basic services while others will be raking in the dollars. How does this make it fair?

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