School districts would keep discretion to spend billions of dollars of “categorical” funding however they want for five more years under a Senate bill that passed its first hurdle in the Legislature on Wednesday.
SB 223’s provisions on local spending control are similar to Gov. Jerry Brown’s sweeping plan for school finance reform. Both approaches would require that districts show how they used the money, freed from state restrictions, to improve student achievement. But there are important differences, too, between the bill, authored by Sen. Carol Liu, D-Pasadena, who chairs the Education Committee, and the governor’s Local Control Funding Formula.
Four years ago, to try to soften the impact of severe K-12 budget cuts, the Legislature temporarily removed restrictions on 40 categorical programs getting $4.5 billion in state funding. They include money for textbooks and materials, physical education, arts and music, teacher training, education technology and deferred maintenance on buildings.
Liu’s bill, as amended, would reimpose protections on at least one of the categorical programs, adult education, and, during the committee hearing, she said she was open to reinstating spending restrictions for other programs. An EdSource survey of the 30 largest school districts revealed that several have diverted substantial funds for adult ed, and others are considering additional cuts next year.
Brown would allow districts to continue to spend money once designated for adult ed however they want, although he would transfer future responsibility for adult ed to community colleges, with some new spending. He would also grant new flexibility in spending for an additional $1.5 billion in categorical programs, including money for career and technical education. Advocates for these programs have expressed concern that school boards, faced with many demands, would cut funding for Partnership Academies, which are career-focused schools within comprehensive high schools, and regional occupational centers that offer some of the more expensive to operate vocational programs.
Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula would redistribute the former categorical money to districts based on the numbers of English learners and low-income children they serve. Those districts with the largest percentages of high-needs students would receive several thousand dollars more per student by the time the governor’s funding formula is fully phased in, an estimated seven years. This redistribution wouldn’t happen under Liu’s bill, which would give districts the same allotment of categorical money they now get. At the hearing, Liz Guillen, director of legislative and community affairs at the nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization Public Advocates Inc., encouraged Liu to continue to work with Brown on the Local Control Funding Formula. Flexibility in spending is important, she said, but so is channeling more money to high-needs students.
Under Brown’s proposal, districts would have to write an extensive accountability plan, detailing how they spent the extra money for high-needs students to raise achievement; county offices of education would review the plans. Liu’s bill would require the state Department of Education to approve districts’ accountability plans, which would require documenting career and college readiness and improvement in test scores for all ethnic and racial subgroups.
Brown is expected to make some changes to his funding plan when he releases the revised budget next month. Liu said that she was open to adding sanctions for districts that don’t raise student achievement and to protect other categorical programs. Her bill would not take effect for two years, when the current provisions for spending flexibility expire.