Twenty-two of the 50 largest districts in the state would receive more money under Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed K-12 funding formula when it’s fully funded, potentially in seven years, while 28 districts would do better if additional money were simply divvied up under the current system, with no reforms, according to data provided this week by the state Department of Finance. Of course, glaring problems with the current system would also persist if nothing were done.
Legislators had been waiting for that piece of information – a comparison of how the state’s approximately 2,000 districts and charter schools would fare under Brown’s proposed Local Control Funding Formula versus how they’d do under the status quo – in order to evaluate Brown’s plan for remaking the way K-12 schools are financed. (As it has done before, Finance did not release a spreadsheet with data that could be reworked, but rather provided an unwieldy 52-page PDF document.)
The new figures may reinforce the calls for changes to Brown’s formula, specifically to raise the base level of per-student funding for all districts, and to make technical fixes. But they also support the principles behind the reforms: the need for uniformity, rationality and fairness in funding.
“We need the information to make an honest comparison,” said Assemblymember Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, who, as chair of the Assembly Budget Committee’s education subcommittee, sought the district breakdowns. “The Legislature will have the opportunity to take the information and come forward with a complementary or alternative proposal into the next level of negotiation” with the Brown administration, she said.
Because Brown is proposing to channel significantly more money to districts with large numbers of low-income students and English learners, he is intending that districts with high-needs students would do relatively better under a new formula. He also wants to fix historical anomalies and inequities in which districts with similar students have been funded at sometimes vastly different amounts.
The problem was that the Department of Finance had previously released figures comparing only what districts received in 2011-12, the base year, and what they’d get under the Local Control Funding Formula in 2019-20. Since the Department is predicting that Proposition 30 and a rebounding economy would pump $15.5 billion in new money – about 30 percent more – into the system during that time, the rising tide tended to make all boats look like yachts.
Under the plan, no district would receive less than they get now. Brown promises to repay most of the 22 percent in cuts all districts had experienced since 2007-08. On top of a newly restored base level of funding for all children, he would add a supplement for English learners and low-income students and a bonus amount to districts with the highest concentrations of high-needs children. In total, most districts would get, on average, $2,000 to $3,000 or more per child than now, amounting to increases of 30 to even 50 percent.
Comparing full funding under the Local Control Funding Formula with full funding in 2019-20 under the status quo offers a different perspective. The magnitude of the difference between reform and doing nothing shrinks. That’s because even under the current system, some “categorical” programs, like the billion dollar Economic Impact Aid, already go only to high-needs students. By status quo, the Department of Finance assumed that all districts would regain money lost in cuts to their base revenue limits, plus missed cost-of-living adjustments. Whatever was left over from the projected new money, about $7 billion, theoretically would be distributed equally per child, with nothing extra for needy kids.
Under the comparison, Santa Ana Unified, one of the biggest beneficiaries, with 78 percent low-income students and 53 percent English learners, would get an extra $1,668, or 16 percent per student more, under the Local Control Funding Formula, bringing it to $11,804. Fresno Unified, another historically underfunded district, would get $11,636: $1,306 more per child – 13 percent – than under the status quo.
At the other end are districts like San Ramon Valley Unified in Contra Costa County, with only 2.5 percent low-income students and 4.6 percent English learners. Already one of the lowest state funded district per capita, at $5,987 per student, it would get $8,317 under the fully funded Local Control Funding Formula. While that is $2,330 more, it is nonetheless $1,420, or 14.5 percent less per student, than it would get under a fully funded status quo. Despite Brown’s promise to restore all cuts to the base revenue amount districts received before the recession, districts like San Ramon complain that they still won’t get back to their full spending power of five years ago, when they also had categorical funding for textbooks, counselors and teacher training. Bob Blattner, a Sacramento-based education consultant, estimates that as many as one-quarter of the state’s districts may not have funding restored to the full 2007-08 levels, based a slightly different analysis done by the state Department of Education.
Brown’s formula does not include federal spending, locally raised dollars through parcel taxes and district foundations, and it excludes some significant programs, such as special education.
An analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California pointed out that districts with largely disadvantaged students generally do fare better than wealthier districts under the current system of categorical programs, but there are large disparities based on outdated, inconsistently applied formulas.
An example is Long Beach and nearby Los Angeles Unified, each with similar students (about 70 percent low-income, slightly more English learners in Los Angeles). Yet Los Angeles Unified currently receives $1,273 more per student than Long Beach, primarily because it receives $800 per student in desegregation money that most districts don’t get. The gap wouldn’t close, but would narrow under the Local Control Funding Formula, with Long Beach getting $1,070 more per student than it would get without funding reform; Los Angeles Unified, while keeping its desegregation dollars, would get less than half of that increase.