New Assembly Education chair skeptical of plan for weighted funding

November 15, 2012

Photos by Alison Yin for EdSource

Any bill to change the way that California funds its public schools will have to go through Joan Buchanan, and that could present problems for Gov. Jerry Brown.

Buchanan is the new chair of the Assembly Education Committee, and, as she made clear in a lengthy interview with EdSource Today (see transcript), she’s skeptical of Brown’s weighted student formula, which he plans to reintroduce next year.

Buchanan is worried that funding for some districts would stagnate while funding for other districts would increase at a much higher rate under a weighted student formula. Photo by Kathryn Baron. (Click to enlarge.)

Her views reflect those of suburban and demographically better off school districts that, like everyone else, have lost more than $1,000 per student during the past five years, but now fear that they won’t be allowed to recoup if most of new money for education is redistributed to districts with large proportions of English learners and low-income children. That’s what the governor is proposing, although Brown already has significantly changed the formula once and his advisers say he’s open to further modifying it. His advisers are meeting three times this month, in invitation-only sessions, with key legislative staff and a cross-section of representatives of advocacy groups and school districts to discuss ideas.

There may be no legislator more knowledgeable about K-12 issues than Buchanan, a Democrat from Alamo. For nearly two decades, she served on the San Ramon Valley Unified School District in Contra Costa County as she raised her five children. Before that, she was an executive with Delta Dental.

In the interview, she said she agreed with Brown’s goal of directing more money to disadvantaged children. But that formula requires California to answer a couple of question that no one has been comfortable tackling so far, said Buchanan.

“So what does it cost to educate every child in the State of California? Are we going to take money away from districts that are succeeding and jeopardize the gains they’ve made to put them into other districts? There has to be something that’s equitable,” she said.

Along with school finance reform, Buchanan discussed the implementation of Common Core (she has concerns about that, too), teacher evaluations, a potential school facilities bond in two years, and charter schools, during an hour-long interview with me and EdSource Today senior writer Kathryn Baron last month. It was during one of the Giants’ playoff games, and Buchanan, an ardent fan, showed self-restraint in checking the score only a few times.

What follows is a transcript that’s been edited for length.

We started by about prospects for a weighted student formula assuming the passage of Proposition 30, which would generate an average of $3 billion more annually for schools and community colleges over the next seven years.

For background on the weighted student formula: Earlier this year, Brown proposed simplifying school funding while directing more money to needy children. He would provide a base rate for all districts, and then group categorical dollars – restricted money earmarked for several dozen programs – into one pot and redistribute them based on a district’s percentages of low-income students and English learners. Some categorical programs are intended for disadvantaged children, but others, like reimbursement for class size reduction, have been open to all districts. Suburban districts  with few needy children worry they’d lose this money under a weighted student formula. The base grant – at least as proposed – would roughly correspond to what’s called a district’s revenue limit. But districts’ revenue limits aren’t equal or equitable, and some suburban districts fear that the new base limit under Brown’s formula – whatever it turns out to be – would become the ceiling for them, locking them into below-average funding.

JOAN BUCHANAN:  The governor’s overall goal is to try and simplify government. The problem with weighted student formula is, the way he’s proposing it, it doesn’t solve the problem.

EDSOURCE:  Which is…?

When a weighted student formula was first proposed five years ago, school spending was higher and on a trajectory to increase substantially, Buchanan says, pointing to a graph she drew during the interview. Photo by John Fensterwald. (Click to enlarge.)

BUCHANAN:  Schools in California are underfunded. We spend $2,500 less per student than the national average, and we’re a high cost-of-living state. If you take a look at the adequacy reports, the Getting Down to Facts that Stanford put out in 2007, they said you need to spend more money; but, at the same time, spending more money isn’t enough. You need to do things differently.

In this state we haven’t even determined what it costs to provide a quality, basic education to all children, because then you would have an obligation to try and do something about it. There are gaps there that I think we need to fill in if we’re going to start talking about changing our funding formula.

EDSOURCE:  Do you think that we need to go back to the spending level the way it was in 2007, before we make any changes to the formula?

BUCHANAN:  One question in weighted student formula that I have is, Are we going to bring all the school districts back up to where they were? Because, if not – and I sat at the negotiations table all 18 years – what happens when my teachers are still on furlough, and you’re giving your teachers salary increases? What happens when you’re restoring programs, and I can’t restore programs?

Now, there’s a second issue. You have your revenue-limit funding, which is your unrestricted. And then you have your restricted, which is your categorical, right? And then you have your federal funds.

The weighted student formula as proposed is going to deal with the subcategory of your restricted or your categorical funding. It doesn’t take into consideration that your basic revenue limits are very unequal. You can take a district like San Ramon Valley, which is in a very middle- to upper-middle-class community that has the fourth-lowest revenue district in the state. It’s a district that gets no federal funds. It’s a district that gets very little categoricals, because we don’t have a high enough percentage of English-language learners and others. Their categorical is basically special education (editor’s note: which is excluded in the governor’s weighted student formula). It’s textbooks. It is class size reduction. There are a few programs like that, and that’s it. So, do you take their textbook money?

Are we going to take San Ramon’s categorical funding and equalize that, not taking into consideration what their revenue limit may be – it’s below average, but far below others. What do you do with districts just south of us, where, because of laws in the past, revenue limits are a thousand dollars per student more?

If you want to do it right, someone’s got to ask the question, How are we going to make sure that every child gets that base funding to get a quality education? How are we going to provide additional funding to the higher-need areas for students that require more time and support to be able to achieve standards? And what’s the path to get there?

What I’ve seen in California schools for decades is we just keep leveling down. So is weighted student formula, in and of itself, the right way to go? Or do we need other systemic changes along with that, to really bring up achievement?

EDSOURCE:  So the two premises in the weighted student formula. One is flexibility – let locals decide, in terms of…

BUCHANAN:   But you know as well as I do, they’ve done that for years. When the state has money, they say, “We don’t trust you to make a decision.” That’s how a lot of these categoricals got created, you know? “We’re afraid that if we give you this money, you’re just going to give it to teachers or whoever, and you’re not going to really do anything to improve programs. So we’ve got money, and we’ll give you cost-of-living, but we’re going to create a new categorical.”

Then, when the state doesn’t have money, they say, “You know what? You know better than us. So you decide where you want to cut.”

And so creating this formula, and taking money away from schools, and saying, “Well, we’re giving you flexibility,” I think that’s a false statement.

EDSOURCE:  But  if you trust the view at the Department of Finance projections, and if Prop. 30 passes, there will be billions of dollars over the next seven, eight years – that’s additional money…

BUCHANAN: But do you believe that you should be bringing some schools up to where they were two or three times faster than other schools? Because that’s what his formula does.

EDSOURCE: The other part of his premise is that, yes, disadvantaged kids need more money.

BUCHANAN:  I agree. But disadvantaged kids also get federal funds. They get money from other categorical programs. And do they need more on top of that? Yes. But so do children in other school districts.

So what does it cost to educate every child in the State of California? Are we going to take money away from districts that are succeeding and jeopardize the gains they’ve made to put  them into other districts? There has to be something that’s equitable.

On top of that, you’ve got the governor going around making deals. If you take a look at the Targeted Instructional Improvement Block Grants (TIIG), where 80 percent of the money goes to four districts, that money was originally the desegregation busing money. But you go down and make a deal with LAUSD, so that they to keep that money, but you have other districts that have to give up money. Is that right?

EDSOURCE:  So is there a way of phasing it in, a longer path than the six or seven years that the governor proposed?

BUCHANAN: I think you can phase it in, but I think you’ve got to take an approach that takes a look at all the money that we receive, that we spend for education, on the instructional side of the budget; and you’ve got to figure out, how do we phase it in, in a way that we’re not creating winners and losers?

EDSOURCE: So the governor last time put it in the budget, and so it was really not discussed at length. And if he does that again, what would be an appropriate response from the Assembly?

BUCHANAN:  I think you’d get a similar result, response. Last year, if you think about it, there was not one member of the education community that supported the weighted student formula.

EDSOURCE:  So how would you like it handled, then, this year?

BUCHANAN:  It should be handled through policy committee; but I also think, if you’re talking about such a major change to how we fund schools in the state of California, it’s more than just a bill. You need to really put some work into it, to determine, again, what is the cost to educate a child? Where are we now? Where do we want to be? And what’s the right path to get there?

Go slow on Common Core

Joan Buchanan

EDSOURCE:  Another issue that’s coming is Common Core. You’ve expressed some concern about the timing and the amount of money that it would cost to prepare teachers and districts for that.

BUCHANAN:  First of all, I support the concept of national Common Core standards. For too long in this nation, we’ve had apples-to-oranges comparisons from state to state because we have different standards. We have different tests, and it’s really difficult to make those kinds of comparisons. The Common Core they’ve developed are good standards, although, as you know, the Fordham Institute rates California standards an “A,” and the Common Core, a “B.” My concern is what happens at the district level.

Most districts are now, with flexibility in spending, using their textbook dollars to keep other programs afloat, so you have a system where we’re asking our school districts to implement new Common Core standards without any money for training and in-service, without any money for textbooks or other instructional materials, and then, on top of that, if they don’t do it well, we’re testing. I have serious concerns as to whether or not we’re going to do it well, or whether or not we’re setting students and teachers and schools up for failure.

EDSOURCE:  Would you suggest slowing it down, putting off the implementation?

BUCHANAN:  Yes, slowing it down, or phasing it in. There are some districts that have been working hard on it. You could allow some districts to implement and test and phase it in, but there’s got to be a more thoughtful approach.

You can talk to schools. They’re not even sure how we’re going to do the Smarter Balanced (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, an organization of states designing the assessment) that requires all the computers and the testing with the equipment that they have. Do we have the technology and the bandwidth and all the other infrastructure there to support the new test?

EDSOURCE:  One of the possibilities is to start with a pen-and-paper test. Will you entertain legislation that says, “No, let’s not do the Smarter Balanced assessment in 2014-15? We should put that off several more years and continue with the CSTs (California Standards Tests)?”

BUCHANAN:  I don’t plan to author that legislation. The State Board is looking into this. We need to let them do their job, because I would hope that everyone wants to be sure that we have a successful implementation.

I’ve worked with data systems in the private and public sector; and there’s the old saying that users can make a good system fail, or a bad system succeed. We want to create the environment where we take the system and we do all we can to make it be successful.

Collaborate with teachers on evaluations

EDSOURCE:  One of the issues at the end of the Legislature was teacher evaluations, and the whole thing fell apart in the last few days. I’m sure the issue will come up unless everyone’s had enough scars for the next five years. So how would you deal with the issue? Would you start with the current Stull Act or do you think it needs rewriting? You’ve had a lot of experience firsthand.

BUCHANAN:  I actually think it probably needs to be rewritten. When you start taking a look at Ed Code, including all the articles on evaluation, you’ll find out that there are references to other sections that don’t even exist. The easiest thing to do would be to just replace the Stull Act with a new evaluation procedure that works, and is clear, and is easy to understand by everybody.

EDSOURCE:  What would your ideal evaluation bill look like?

BUCHANAN:  I’m in the process, and want to meet with all the different stakeholders, because that’s critically important. If you have a good evaluation bill, it’s going to have multiple parts. I think it’s going to be based on the California Standards for the Teaching Profession.

As for assessments or scores, the research says you should not base teacher evaluations on tests that you give once a year, that that’s not the proper use of them. But I would want to take a look at both formative and summative evaluations in terms of how are we using those to improve instructional practices and improve student learning? Those are two key components that need to be in an evaluation.

EDSOURCE:  A contentious point in the end of AB 5 was over negotiations. Whether or not…

BUCHANAN:  You should negotiate?

EDSOURCE:  Exactly.

BUCHANAN:  As I told you, I sat at the table 18 years in the district, and we all knew that the current evaluation system wasn’t working, and so we had a group of teachers and principals that got together and met for a year, and said, “We have a new evaluation system. We want to pilot it.”

And it was a system based on the California Standards for the Teaching Profession. It required much more time of the principals, but provided much more meaningful information to the teachers.

And then, the next year, we had more schools that said, “We want to pilot it.” And again, you hit that critical mass where you bring it in district-wide.

I actually believe that if you sit down and have a conversation about this, and everyone buys into it, you’re going to end up with a much stronger system; and I’ve been frustrated for years by, whether it’s board members or superintendents or others, who don’t want to respect the bargaining process. If something’s not good for the district, you have to say no. But you also need to be able to work with the people who are on the front lines every day. How do you expect to improve education if you can’t work with teachers?

And I have found teachers, over the years, they tend to be conservative. They take a great deal of pride in their work and in their profession, and they want all teachers to perform at high levels. So I’m personally not afraid of the bargaining process.

EDSOURCE:  Your process started in a conversation, and not a formal negotiation process, but a consensus building. Then you went back based on teacher support, and it was basically, at that point, the bargaining had been done informally.

BUCHANAN:  Right. But we’ve had other articles in our contract where we started at the table; but, with anything you’re doing, I would hope that the leadership is going back and getting input from its members, and management’s doing the same; and there are other times when you negotiate where you agree, okay? “We’re going to set this aside. We’re going to form a committee and have them look at it.”

But do I think you can come up with fair evaluation systems by negotiating those parts that are important? I do believe you can.

EDSOURCE:  And should that be primarily a local decision? Or to what extent should the state determine what the parameters are, or how many categories you will have in terms of, you know, satisfactory, unsatisfactory?

BUCHANAN:  I think the state should create an umbrella; and I think, under that umbrella, locals should have discretion in terms of what they believe is most important. And I say that because we have over a thousand school districts in the state.

We have LA Unified, with 10 percent of our students. We have one-school school districts. We have school districts where you have close to a hundred percent free and reduced lunch/English-language learners. We have others where it’s much smaller percentages. And so I really do think it makes sense.

To try and say to the State of California, “I can come up with an evaluation system that works for every single district, and tell you exactly what to look for,” I just don’t think that’s true. I think if we charge local school board members and superintendents with the responsibility for running their schools, there has to be some trust there that under an umbrella they can come up with evaluation systems that work.

Figure out how to pay for new school technology

EDSOURCE:  One of the areas that you spent a lot of time on as a school board member is facilities, and the superintendent of public instruction is talking about a bond in 2014. Do you think that’s a good idea? Is it necessary? Is now the time to do it? And how would you structure this bond if you could?

BUCHANAN:  I’m on the state allocations board, and I just got asked to chair a committee to take a look at how we might structure a new bond and make recommendations to the Legislature. A number of us want to take a look at can we streamline programs to make them easier to administer, easier for districts to understand. To take a look at where the need is going to be with money. Do we need a bond? Absolutely!

The issue that’s going to come up is that when you take a look at the state budget, over the last decade, debt service has grown by 110 percent; and, whereas debt service used to be 2 percent of the general fund in the ’70s. It was 4 percent in the ’80s. It’s now up to over 7 percent, and will increase to over 10 percent if we don’t sell another bond. The Legislature, long-term, and the governor, need to ask ourselves What should we be using general obligation bonds to finance in this state? What’s that proper use?

I definitely think education is, because education is an arm of state government. Education is not an arm of cities or counties. And the state has an obligation to educate all of its children, and an economic interest, because an educated workforce helps to build a strong economy.

The program we’ve created where the state partners with developers for new construction makes sense. It partners with school districts for modernization. The $35 billion in bonds was passed in the last decade have been matched by over $70 billion in local bonds, and it’s been good for the economy, but it’s also been good for the children in California. And, with a school system as big as ours, we’re always going to need money, whether it’s to build new schools or to rehabilitate existing schools.

EDSOURCE:  Should a sizable portion of this be devoted to technology? And we talked about Smarter Balanced and the need for bandwidth, and more computers.

BUCHANAN: Well, right now, under Prop. 39 bonds, you can include technology; and most districts include that, whether they’re in their new construction or modernization. You can use Prop. 39 bonds to buy furniture and equipment.

But, overall, we’ve got to figure out how we deal with the technology issue, because if you’re modernizing or building a new school, then you put in technology. But if your school’s 15 years old, what do you do in terms of replacing those computers, or expanding bandwidth?

The technology issue in the State of California is more than just bonds. We’re going to have to figure out how do we fund this on an ongoing basis because teachers and districts are using technology more and more in instructional practices. And when you look at computers, you’ve got to figure, about every four years, five years at the most, you’ve got to replace them.

EDSOURCE:  What would you say is the state’s responsibility in regard to facilities and technology to charter schools?

BUCHANAN: If you take a look at the last bond, money was included in that bond for charter schools.

EDSOURCE:  Are there other areas regarding charter schools that you think need attention, either tighter regulation or less regulation? Different relationships between district schools and charter schools?

BUCHANAN: There are times you feel like you’re at war between traditional schools and charter schools, and I think that we need to find more ways that we can work together and get along. I do think that at some point we’re going to have to address financial accountability of charter schools and conflicts of interest because, right now, school districts have certain audit requirements and other requirements that charter schools don’t have. They’re publicly-funded schools, and there needs to be a level of accountability.

The other issue that I believe strongly is that it’s almost as though we provide rewards or incentives to become a charter school, but we’re not providing those kinds of rewards for public schools.

When you they’re bringing in new programs, and every single year the test scores are going up, and they’re closing the achievement gap, or they’ve got an API of 850 or 900, should we not have rewards for those schools? In the parent-trigger law we put in a provision that, if you have a score of 800 or higher, you’re not subject to the parent trigger; but I think we’ve got to come up with more ways to reward public schools for doing all that we ask them to do.

EDSOURCE:  You mean in terms of flexibility or financial or what?

BUCHANAN:  Flexibility and in terms of should you be subject to the same rules regarding conversion to charter schools? We need to take what works and we need to support that, and reward that, regardless of where it occurs.

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