Ron Bennett

Ron Bennett

Over the past few weeks, we have seen a marked change in the debate about education funding and the rebuilding of our decimated funding level. Over the past five years, all districts have stood together as revenue limits were cut by roughly 12 percent, our categorical funding was cut by 20 percent, statewide our teaching staffs were cut from 300,000 teachers to only 250,000, and administrators and classified employees suffered the same cuts. Programs for students were cut, employees made concessions from their own pockets, and we were seemingly but one bake sale away from the whole system caving in. But note that all districts were treated roughly the same, no matter the demographics, geography or politics; all districts took the cuts and all employees and students felt them.

Today, our state still ranks nearly last in the nation in per-student spending. We live in a high-tax state, but those taxes have disproportionately favored other governmental needs to the detriment of public education. And as the economy continues its slow uphill climb, Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed a new funding formula that does not look to the cuts of the past as a guide to restoration; rather he concludes that future funding priorities should be different. The debate over the model is rapidly being reduced to a calculation of how individual districts think they will do under the new formula in the short term; the overall level of funding seems to be lost in the discussion.

Under either the current distribution formula or the new one proposed by Gov. Brown, one thing is certain: California will reside at the bottom of the funding rankings for some years to come. And there is no statutory or constitutional assurance that either the new or the old formulas will actually be funded. Under the current funding formula, the state would need to fund cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) plus about 5.5 percent each year to extinguish the deficit factor of 22.27 percent and to restore the cuts to categorical programs by 2020-21. Gov. Brown’s new formula would also require about the same, COLA plus about 5.5 percent to reach his goal by 2020-21.

How many times during the past 20 years have we received COLA plus at least 5.5 percent? Once! During both good and bad economies, public education has lost ground. And we have never made it up. But the debate about winners and losers in the distribution formula brings us perilously close to taking our eye off the real ball — the devastatingly low level of funding that all districts receive. Under either formula, even the districts that gain will remain among the lowest in the nation. We are not opposed to Gov. Brown’s new plan or, for that matter, continuation of the current distribution plan, but neither will by itself revive our educational system. We need a guaranteed funding source and a time-certain plan to move to at least the U.S. average in per-student spending.

Guiding principles for education finance reform

Many of us at School Services of California, Inc., have served in districts that would benefit from one formula or the other, and we feel the urgency to improve conditions for all children by any means possible. But we think that by bifurcating the debate into camps of “haves” and “have-nots” in 2013-14 funding, we fall into the trap of ignoring the fact that under either distribution formula, both groups will continue to be losers relative to other states. The skirmish for the first few crumbs is tempting, but distracts us from the real battle. We need for the state to elevate all districts by committing to ensure that any reform that is enacted incorporates the following principles:

  • This reform will represent the biggest change in more than 40 years; the new system needs to be fully transparent with plenty of opportunity for public comment and legislative deliberation and with adequate timelines for implementation;
  • The model must establish a meaningful “aspirational” funding goal to bring California to a competitive position at the national level;
  • Purchasing power for all districts must be maintained over time by funding the annual statutory COLA for all districts;
  • The system must be transparent in that additional funding to serve poor students, English learners, Special Education students and other needy populations as well as funding to support higher level policy decisions is clearly identified;
  • All districts must benefit from the new formula; it will likely be with us for a long time, so technical issues like enrollment growth and district reorganization must be specifically included;
  • Enough additional funding to make a real difference must be provided; the use of higher than expected revenues for 2013-14 and balancing the buyback of cash deferrals provide opportunities for the state to add more funding as early as 2013-14;
  • The system must provide local flexibility and accountability; but in addition to adequate funding, not instead of adequate funding.

We think these basic principles can be incorporated into Gov. Brown’s proposal or even into current law if he or the Legislature chooses to delay implementation of funding reform. But the opportunities for major reform are few and far between; the new system has to work for all of the districts serving all of our students.

(Note: This is an excerpt from the an editorial earier this month in the Fiscal Report. To see the editorial in its entirety, please go to www.sscal.com.)

Ron Bennett is president and CEO of School Services of California, a Sacramento-based company that provides business, financial, management and advocacy services for school districts. He has been the Chief Business Official for Long Beach Unified School District, Fresno Unified School District and ABC Unified School District. Raised in California, he earned his bachelor’s of Business Administration at the University of Oklahoma and his master’s in Business Administration from Michigan State University.

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  1. Judy Cunningham 4 years ago4 years ago

    Ca. is at the bottom of Ed. funding and among a few at the top for welfare funding.
    Let’s stop the handouts and develop the potential of our future. We are kidding outselves and breeding less than a mediocre culture for CA. Shame on us. Bite the fullet. Get focused and so the RIGHT thing. Fund what will develop our future!
    Thank you,
    Judy

  2. Paul 4 years ago4 years ago

    El, no need to worry now, the state funds primary classes at 32 students, neither boys nor girls take shop (all parents want their kids ready for college), and neither girls nor boys are taught to type (keyboarding skills were recently flagged as a problem for the computerized Common Core tests). :-) In all seriousness, I'm not arguing that the olden days were perfect, just better in terms of funding. The 1950s Baby Boom saw a wave … Read More

    El, no need to worry now, the state funds primary classes at 32 students, neither boys nor girls take shop (all parents want their kids ready for college), and neither girls nor boys are taught to type (keyboarding skills were recently flagged as a problem for the computerized Common Core tests). 🙂

    In all seriousness, I’m not arguing that the olden days were perfect, just better in terms of funding.

    The 1950s Baby Boom saw a wave of school construction, and those finger plan buildings were beautiful and healthy (if cheaply built): neighborhood-school-size, single-floor designs with lots of interior light and outdoor space. Secondary math and science received a shot in the arm during the 1960s, due to Cold War competition. The elder Brown also prioritized the Master Plan and a wave of post-secondary construction. Education became a political issue after Sputnik and remained so through the days of Governor Reagan.

    Things still functioned in the 1970s, though there were some budget cuts. The very early 1980s were the last years when California schools received then-normal levels of operating funding. Apparently, the state contributed surplus revenue to shore up municipal and school district budgets for a few years after Proposition 13 took effect.

    I quite agree that classes were large in the past. While it’s true (and unfortunate) that English Language Development and Special Education were neglected, much smaller percentages of students fell into those categories. Homogeneity made large classes work. It’s also important to note that many class size averages now include the growing army of certificated employees who are not regular classroom teachers, such as psychologists and special educators. Sometimes, secondary teachers’ preparation periods are even averaged in!

    I think it’s fair to say that contemporary voters expect more for less, an unrealistic proposition.

    Replies

    • el 4 years ago4 years ago

      Paul - I was there. Don't kid yourself - the high school classes of 45 didn't work then either, at least not in the district I attended. And the academic achievement of the current generation is far higher than the academic achievement of mine, regardless of what pundits like to say or whatever allegedly scaled scores someone might trot out. Is it good enough? It is not. But there are no good old days for K-12 … Read More

      Paul – I was there. Don’t kid yourself – the high school classes of 45 didn’t work then either, at least not in the district I attended. And the academic achievement of the current generation is far higher than the academic achievement of mine, regardless of what pundits like to say or whatever allegedly scaled scores someone might trot out.

      Is it good enough? It is not. But there are no good old days for K-12 that met everyone’s needs better than they are met today… or I would argue, anyone’s needs.

  3. Paul 4 years ago4 years ago

    Richard, I hope you agree that the Proposition 98 funding level has not proved adequate for our schools. Despite Proposition 98, California is at or near the bottom in per-pupil funding, and not near the bottom in terms of cost of living or need for special services (ELD, etc.). While some would say that the passage of Proposition 98 reflected voter support for public education, I'd say just the opposite. Since the late 1970s (with … Read More

    Richard, I hope you agree that the Proposition 98 funding level has not proved adequate for our schools. Despite Proposition 98, California is at or near the bottom in per-pupil funding, and not near the bottom in terms of cost of living or need for special services (ELD, etc.).

    While some would say that the passage of Proposition 98 reflected voter support for public education, I’d say just the opposite. Since the late 1970s (with full impact in the early 1980s, when state surpluses ran out), California has moved from basic, stable funding to a situation where no one can predict revenues until after the school year has started, and it takes ballot measures — both permanent and temporary — to fund basic educational services.

    Rational solutions such as matching state income tax rates and property tax rates with K-12 educational service levels (whether by increasing those rates or by reducing school services overtly and uniformly) are political non-starters in this state. The author of the article is right in right in that school districts ae competing for crumbs, wrong in suggesting that this can be changed.

    Replies

    • el 4 years ago4 years ago

      Perhaps in some school districts, the 1970s had well funded, wonderful schools... but my 1970s kindergarten had over 30 students and the classes just got bigger from there, usually combining two grades. It's also worth noting that we didn't give a rat's ass about the education of kids who weren't white and that girls took typing, not wood shop or math. I recall quite clearly that the electorate did not care much at all about education … Read More

      Perhaps in some school districts, the 1970s had well funded, wonderful schools… but my 1970s kindergarten had over 30 students and the classes just got bigger from there, usually combining two grades.

      It’s also worth noting that we didn’t give a rat’s ass about the education of kids who weren’t white and that girls took typing, not wood shop or math. I recall quite clearly that the electorate did not care much at all about education pre Prop 13, that it wasn’t really even discussed in state politics as an important issue.

      The other change that happened in the mid 1970’s was the legal requirement to educate kids with disabilities, which has substantially increased costs in ways that most people don’t realize (and many should more properly be accounted to health care spending).

      • navigio 4 years ago4 years ago

        .. and by flexing ell and sed funding we are now going to give a rat’s, um …. ?

  4. Charley 4 years ago4 years ago

    According to DataQuest, there were 283,836 teachers working in 2011-12 and there were 308,790 working in 2006-07. That’s a difference of 24,954.

    Please provide the source you used for the teacher reduction of 50,000 teachers over this period of time.

  5. Richard Moore 4 years ago4 years ago

    Makes you long for the good old days:

    Headline in the Los Angeles Times in 1988, after the passage of Proposition 98:

    Money No Longer A Problem, Honig Says

    State Superintendent of Education Bill Honig explained that with the guarantees of Proposition 98, schools worrying about money was a thing of the past.

  6. el 4 years ago4 years ago

    If there was some golden age of educational goodness in California in the 1970s and 1980s, I completely missed it. Maybe it was just that all the other states were even worse?

  7. Paul 4 years ago4 years ago

    The premise that "all districts were treated roughly the same, no matter the demographics, geography or politics; all districts took the cuts and all employees and students felt them" is simply not true. If I remember correctly, the local control funding spreadsheet revealed that some "excess revenue" districts are still able to spend between $10K (multiple districts) and $17K (Carmel, I believe) per student. Districts that depend on state funding have gone as low as … Read More

    The premise that “all districts were treated roughly the same, no matter the demographics, geography or politics; all districts took the cuts and all employees and students felt them” is simply not true. If I remember correctly, the local control funding spreadsheet revealed that some “excess revenue” districts are still able to spend between $10K (multiple districts) and $17K (Carmel, I believe) per student. Districts that depend on state funding have gone as low as $5K in recent years.

    It makes sense to prioritize state funding for high-needs students (English Learners and the econonimically-disadvantaged — as well as students with disabilities, whose needs are ostensibly addressed by other funding streams rather by the local control formula).

    I do agree that higher baseline funding would be necessary if Californians wanted to restore what was, through the 1980s, a top-notch public education system. Of course, California voters and taxpayers have repeatedly shown their unwillingness to fund public education at higher levels, so that is a pipe dream.

  8. navigio 4 years ago4 years ago

    Divide and conquer.