At what may turn out to be a landmark hearing in Sacramento today, state senators will review a sweeping proposal by Gov. Jerry Brown to reform California’s notoriously complex school finance system that distributes funds based more on decades-old formulas than on student needs.
The simpler system Brown is proposing — explained in this Department of Finance briefing paper prepared for today’s hearing — would give school districts a base amount, and then additional funds based on the number of low income students and those classified as English learners.
Although Brown’s plan would be far more streamlined and transparent than the current system, it is still not one that the average Californian would easily understand. (For details, see this description by John Fensterwald.)
It would phase out 44 so-called “categorical programs” — funding streams targeted as specific programs such as teacher training, school safety and class size reduction — and instead offer school districts the flexibility in how they spent those funds — on their original purposes or on something completely different.
The only categorical programs that would remain intact would be special education, school nutrition programs, pre-school and after school programs, funding for small school districts in remote parts of the state, and schools funded through the Quality Education Investment Act as a result of legal settlement.
Brown proposed a streamlined school finance system in his education platform during his gubernatorial campaign. The detailed platform got almost no attention at the time. After he became governor, Brown barely referred to it. Instead, his focus during his first year in office was on reducing the state’s budget deficit, along with his unsuccessful attempt to convince Republican lawmakers to place a tax initiative on the ballot.
Then in a surprise move, his January budget called for the reforms that will be discussed at a hearing of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee today, chaired by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco.
The hearing, along with the materials prepared in advance for it, suggest that Brown is serious about wanting to transform the system that consumes over 40 percent of the state’s general fund. His administration has projected the amounts that every school district would receive under a reformed finance system, and also includes draft legislation to enact his proposals into law.
His plan would be phased in gradually, and districts would be guaranteed the same amount of funding they received next year as they do this year. The plan has many features in common with one proposed in a bill (AB 18) authored by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, the chairperson of the Assembly Education Committee, which stalled in the Legislature last year.
California’s school finance system has a Dr. Seuss-like quality, an archaic system based on outdated formulas established decades ago. It has also resulted in significant inequities in how school districts are funded. Disparities in funding often coincide with how rich or poor a district is, but that is not always the case, as an analysis by California Watch highlighted.
Some low-income districts receive far less than other comparable low income districts. In other cases, low income districts can receive more per student than wealthier ones, typical as a result of funding streams from any number of “categorical” programs.
It will require a deeper analysis to determine the extent to which Brown’s plan will eliminate these disparities, which are exacerbated by differing amounts districts are able to generate from local sources (such as parcel taxes and private fundraising) as well as how much they receive from the federal government.
Brown’s plan based on an a academic paper written nearly five year ago by three authors. One is Michael Kirst, a Stanford Emeritus professor who Brown appointed to the State Board of Education, and is currently its president. Kirst served in the same role during Brown’s first stint as governor, and is Brown’s oldest advisor on education.
A co-author of the paper is Goodwin Liu, whom Brown appointed to be a justice on the California Supreme Court, after Republicans blocked Liu’s nomination by President Obama to be a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. At the time he wrote it, he was a law professor at the Earl Warren institute at the Berkeley Law School at UC Berkeley.
The third author was Alan Bersin, the former superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District.
While Brown’s funding formula has given new prominence to the ideas in the Kirst-Liu-Bersin paper, It will be months before it becomes clear whether the paper’s core ideas will be transformed into state law. What is still far from clear is whether the multiple constituencies with a stake in California’s public schools are ready or able to dismantle the convoluted edifice of school finance constructed over many decades — and whether they have the will to do so.
The task will be complicated by the fact that California has nearly 1,000 school districts, each its own school board. Many of them will have an interest in preserving the status quo, especially if they risk eventually lose funds under the reformed system Brown is proposing.
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