Intent on passing school finance reform this year but open to revising last year’s proposal, the Brown administration held the first of three Friday meetings with dozens of school district officials and advocates last week on plans for weighted student funding. The outreach contrasts with the tack that Gov. Jerry Brown and the Department of Finance took last year, when they dropped a weighted student formula into the state budget in January, only to meet a wall of resistance from groups in the Education Coalition with schools facing potentially massive budget cuts.
The meeting on Friday came three days after the passage of the Brown-sponsored Proposition 30, ensuring nearly $3 billion more to K-12 schools per year while lifting spirits and obligating the governor’s backers to pay serious attention to one of his signal initiatives.
Brown is proposing to simplify the state’s convoluted system of funding schools and to turn more authority over spending to districts, while at the same time gradually funneling extra dollars to districts with low-income students and English learners; that’s the weighted piece of the plan. Brown’s proposal last year presumed both the passage of Proposition 30 and substantial increases in funding over the next four to five years from a recovering economy.
Administration officials have said Brown will resubmit a weighted student formula in this year’s budget; they’re also hearing from districts with few disadvantaged students, who fear they’ll be locked into pre-recession funding levels of five years ago, as new money is directed to districts with substantial numbers of needy students.
Friday’s invitation-only session in Sacramento, off limits to the press, included representatives of advocacy organizations that have followed the issue (EdVoice, Public Advocates, the ACLU, Children Now among them); traditional groups representing education unions, school boards and school administrators that comprise the Education Coalition; key legislative staff; administrators from large and small, urban and suburban school districts; and a smattering of others with a stake in finance reform (ill-fated Prop. 38 backer Molly Munger among them). There were nearly four dozen active participants in the discussion, according to those attending.
“I appreciate how the administration is approaching the issue this year,” said Ted Lempert, president of Children Now and an advocate of weighted student funding, who was at the meeting. “The current system is unacceptable and folks are ready to engage in how to get significant change.”
State Board of Education President Michael Kirst, whose proposal for a weighted student formula five years ago became the basis for Brown’s plan, said that the first meeting served as an overview. After presentations by Brown adviser Sue Burr (not acting in her role as executive director of the State Board) and Nicolas Schweizer of the Department of Finance, participants were asked what they liked about the weighted funding proposal and how they would improve it.
“It’s clear that the administration is making a positive effort to restart the conversation,” said Liz Guillen, director of legislative and community affairs for Public Advocates.
Nonetheless, substantial disagreements that surfaced last year over details of the formula still remain. Some of those will likely come out this Friday, at the second meeting. The goal, said Kirst, is to have the same participants break into smaller groups, delve into details, and propose changes. Then, on Friday, Nov. 30, the administration and Finance Dept. will respond broadly to the ideas, presaging the changes that could be included in the budget, he said.
Here are five areas of contention likely to draw intense discussion at the second meeting:
- Base funding: Under the formula, every district will receive a minimum amount per student, roughly corresponding to the general unrestricted spending districts get now, with the weights for disadvantaged students on top of that. The higher the base, the fewer extra dollars for the needy. There will be tension between suburban and urban districts over the amount and how much the base amount will increase over time. Sensing opposition, the administration raised the base rate and lowered the per-student weight last year in the May budget revision. It may rise again.
- Concentration factor: Districts with high proportions of high-needs children – over 50 percent – would get bonus dollars out of recognition that concentrated levels of poverty and English learners pose special challenges. Brown originally proposed a 37 percent bonus for districts where all students were needy but lowered that to 20 percent in the May revise. Suburban districts argue that all needy children should be treated alike without a concentration factor.
- Transparency: This is a big issue for advocates of disadvantaged students, who want to require that dollars allocated for high-needs students be tracked closely and spent on them, not diverted by the district office. Kirst and Brown oppose allocating weighted formulas to individual schools as too complex. But Kirst said this week that there should be ways to standardize the spending codes that schools already use and broaden audits that schools are required to perform. It’s too soon to say if this approach to accountability would satisfy advocates.
- Phase-in period: Brown originally proposed phasing in the weighted formula over six years, then extended it to seven in May. Suburban districts want funding restored to pre-recession levels before moving to a weighted formula, but that would push implementation out much further.
- Exceptions to the formula: Brown would fund the weights in the formula by ending categorical funds – billions of dollars that had been restricted to being spent on smaller class sizes, textbook purchases, partnership academies in career technical education and adult education. Defenders of spending on bus transportation and teacher training argue they are too important to leave to individual districts’ discretion. But every categorical program that is left in means there would be less money to be redistributed to high-needs students.
In this area and others, there will be battles to find the right balance.