Introduced as a comprehensive plan for K-12 finance reform, Assembly Bill 18 is a shell of its former self. The bill that the Legislature ended up passing last month would merely create a 21-member task force to explore various options and formulas for fairer and simpler school funding and make recommendations to the Legislature by April 1.
But even this seemingly non-controversial rewrite of the bill, with amendments intended to mollify Gov. Brown, may not escape his veto. State Board of Education President Michael Kirst and the board’s executive director, Sue Burr, both of whom advise Brown on education, indicated that the governor wants no competition to his plan for a weighted student formula – or another group distracting the Legislature from dealing with it next year.
Two years ago, Santa Monica Democrat Julia Brownley, then chair of the Assembly Education Committee, introduced AB 18 with the ambitious goal of making the finance system simpler and fairer. Her early version would have created three block grants for school districts – one for basic funding for all districts, one for teacher training, and one exclusively for English learners and poor children – as a way to steer more money in their direction. Brownley was able to get the bill through the Assembly in 2011, and she agreed to take an extra year to work out the difficult nuts and bolts of the new system.
Then, in January, Brown superseded it by introducing a weighted student formula as part of his budget, and all attention turned to his proposal. It would direct extra funding to districts based on the proportion of English learners and low-income students enrolled. The Department of Finance changed the formula in May, in response to criticism, and Brown, sensing pushback from education groups he needs united behind Proposition 30, his tax initiative, agreed to hold off for a year.
Meanwhile, Brownley’s decision to turn AB 18 into a study committee reflected the feeling among many legislators that Brown was jamming them on a weighted student formula that hadn’t gone through a full legislative process, with public hearings and district-by-district breakdowns on the impact of the changes. The task force, which Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson would chair, would consider alternatives, as well as the difficult transition issues: how to convert to a new system while restoring funding to all districts for years of budget cuts. In its final form, Brown would get to appoint 10 of the 21 task force members, although the bill spells out the qualifications of the appointees. They’d have to include representatives from urban, suburban, and rural districts; a teacher; an administrator; a classified worker, such as a secretary; and a parent – restrictions Brown might not like even if he were OK with a task force. Torlakson also would have to find foundations willing to underwrite the full cost of the bill – something that hasn’t been done yet.
Regardless of AB 18’s fate, interest in finance reform remains strong. Last month, leaders of two dozen organizations and seven prominent superintendents sent a letter to Assembly Speaker John Perez and Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, saying “it is time for California to move forward and implement this critical reform.”
“For far too long we have evaluated and bemoaned the failings and inequities in how we fund education, and now an opportunity exists to fundamentally restructure our finance system for the better. We must seize this opportunity. Please don’t let it pass,” they said. Organizations signing on included nonprofits focusing on education equity – Public Counsel, Children Now, the ACLU, and Education Trust-West; the California School Boards Assn. and the Association of California School Administrators; two business organizations – the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group; and two foundations – Dirk and Charlene Kabcenell Foundation and the Silver Giving Foundation.
The letter, a copy of which was sent to Gov. Brown, is a prompt to the Legislature not to sit around and wait for the next iteration of Brown’s weighted student formula but to start to become engaged now in what may be the critical education issue of 2013.