A termed-out state senator who’s been a leader on education issues offered advice Wednesday to Gov. Jerry Brown on how to get the Legislature to pass significant school finance reform: Don’t try to jam lawmakers; ally yourself with a respected legislator who’s got more than a couple years left to serve; and implement the reforms gradually, for more buy-in from 1,000 districts that will be asking, “What’s in it for me?”
“Come back through policy process and seek someone (from the Legislature) with a runway in front of them, who can make a commitment over a period of time. That’s a better path to success,” Sen. Joe Simitian, a Democrat from Palo Alto, said at during a panel discussion in Sacramento sponsored by the Public Policy Institute of California. Joining him were the architect of Brown’s weighted student formula, State Board of Education President Michael Kirst, and Catherine Lhamon, an advocate for disadvantaged children as director of impact litigation for the Public Counsel Law Center in Los Angeles. Like Simitian, Lhamon praised Brown’s “courage” in proposing an “excellent concept” but also sharply criticized the governor’s proposal for failing to demand that districts show how they’d spend extra dollars on disadvantaged children. She and Kirst also disagreed Wednesday on this point.
Brown offered a weighted student funding formula, transforming how school districts are funded, in January, and the Department of Finance significantly modified it in May. Offering simplicity and equity lacking in the confusing current system, the weighted formula would give every district a base grant per student with additional money for targeted populations of low-income students and students learning English. Districts with large concentrations of those students would get bonus dollars. Brown proposed to phase in the formula over seven years. Some districts with large percentages of low-income students would have received $2,000 to $3,000 more per student at the end of seven years, assuming the state recovered from the economic recession.
By attaching the financing reform to his budget instead of as a separate bill, Brown wanted to bypass the normal legislative give and take – and likely nibbling away at it by interest groups. Kirst frankly acknowledged this seemed “easier as a political route.” The governor has more control over the budget, and tradeoffs can be made involving a handful of legislators. “The Administration really thought it had a shot,” Kirst said.
But lawmakers resented the end run around the legislative process and raised substantive questions about the redistribution formula’s impact on individual districts, some of which would not see a return to their 2007-08 level of revenue, the high point in funding, for years. The Education Coalition, representing traditional education groups, reacted coolly, while questioning the wisdom of introducing a complex proposal at the same time as asking voters to pass a tax increase.
Kirst said he was “baffled” that that districts, especially in the Central Valley, that clearly would have benefited from reform were “amazingly silent” and remained on the sidelines.
But Simitian said the challenge was to make the proposal less abstract and, using a neologism that Brown coined a few years back, to “tangibletize” it – show the tangible impact of weighted student funding on kids’ lives.
Monitoring how money is spent
A weighted student formula would shift decision-making from Sacramento to local districts, which would choose how to spend money, while being held accountable for results – however the State Board and Legislature define them (test scores, graduation rates, preparation for careers, or perhaps parental satisfaction).
Kirst described the tradeoff: “We’re willing to give up on a lot of regulations if you can show the results.” Charter schools have that flexibility, he said, but they also have a mandate to close if they’re not performing.
But Lhamon said districts should be held accountable not just for future test results but also immediately for directing money to students entitled to receive it. “Dollars must follow children to the school site; that’s a core issue,” she said.
There must be checking, she said, to know all kids have textbooks, are taught by sufficiently trained teachers, and have access to courses in sequence leading to college. Without monitoring, students will be denied an equal opportunity to learn.
Kirst said the governor would be open to requiring that districts channel weighted dollars to school sites with disadvantaged students. But the Administration wants to free districts from long checklists of items demanded by Sacramento that may not be a district’s priority or relevant to good learning.
Simitian said that districts cannot choose wisely on spending without good data to support their decisions, and Brown has opposed expanding statewide data systems. Without the information, he said, districts will continue to base spending priorities on popular programs, like reducing class sizes, instead of the most effective programs for limited additional dollars.
Kirst said that the Administration is open to adjusting the formula based on suggestions that legislators and others have made, including repaying districts for lost revenue as a result of state budget cuts. Simitian, who comes from Silicon Valley, suggested a regional cost-of-living adjustment to reflect the high costs of living in San Francisco compared with Tulare County.
The Legislature’s assertion of control over a weighted student formula may come soon. AB 18, authored by Julia Brownley, chair of the Assembly Education Committee, would create a 19-member task force that would make recommendations by April 1, 2013 on a range of school funding options, of which a weighted student formula would be just one. The bill was passed by the Assembly and is now in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
After the forum, Kirst and Sue Burr, executive director of the State Board and a key adviser to Brown, both said they oppose the bill, raising the possibility that Brown might veto it.
Brown wants the focus next year to be on a weighted student formula, not alternatives to it.
John Fensterwald is the editor of EdSource Today. He welcomes you to contact him.