Brown's funding plan faces vigorous review – and speed bump

April 5, 2013

The chair of the Assembly Education Committee turned Gov. Jerry Brown’s comprehensive plan for education finance reform into bill form Thursday, ensuring that all aspects will get an extensive review, while raising the possibility that the plan may not pass in time to take effect July 1, as the governor wants.

Buchanan is worried that funding for some districts would stagnate while funding for other districts would increase at a much higher rate under a weighted student formula.

Joan Buchanan, chair of the Assembly Education Committee (photo by Kathryn Baron).

The introduction of Assembly Bill 88 by Assemblymember Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, was not unexpected. Legislative leaders for a year have called on Brown to present his Local Control Funding Formula, radically transforming how K-12 schools will be funded, into a bill that could be debated and vetted, rather than being considered as one huge addendum to the budget. Several months ago, a legislative staff member involved in education issues described their position as “no bill, no deal.”

Buchanan has been clear on this point. A former long-time member of the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, she has been critical of the impact of Brown’s formula on middle-income districts like hers.

“We have been saying this is more than a budget matter,” said Rick Simpson, deputy chief of staff and education adviser to Assembly Speaker John Pérez. “It has to be considered by policy committees. The governor’s staff has not done anything to facilitate this matter so we thought we would give them a hand.”

Brown is proposing to simplify and make uniform and equitable a complex, nearly indecipherable funding system that includes dozens of compliance-driven state programs built on often outdated formulas. Brown would establish a base funding amount per student that varies by grade, and redistribute additional money – 35 percent of the base amount ­– to districts according to how many low-income students and English learners they have. Districts with significant concentrations of high-needs students would get money on top of the 35 percent, reflecting the challenges of educating children in high-poverty, non-English-speaking neighborhoods.

By the time full funding is phased in ­– Brown is aiming for seven years – districts with the highest concentration of high-needs students would get $3,000 to $4,000 more per student than districts with predominantly high-income students. No district would receive less that it gets now, and most would get considerably more, in part because Proposition 98 revenues are projected to rise substantially over the next four to five years.

Brown would also grant districts more power to determine how money is spent, permanently eliminating most categorical programs, while requiring districts to provide detailed, transparent accountability plans for parents and the public.

“This would be a sweeping change with a profound impact the way we fund public education potentially for the next quarter-century,” said Simpson. “Lots of questions will need to be answered.”

Complicated timing

Brown would prefer that the Local Control Funding Formula be attached to his budget as part of the trailer bill, which details the statutory changes that the new policies would require. That way, he can negotiate the details as part of the budget process and limit review to the Legislature’s budget committees, which consider financial aspects, not policy.

Sending the reforms through policy committees – the Assembly and Senate Education Committees – creates potentially complicated timing and tactics. Passage of a budget by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year, requires only a majority vote. Passage of a bill to take effect with the budget, under an expedited deadline, would require a two-thirds vote; that would be hard to get, even with Democrats in solid command of the Legislature, because support will likely fall along suburban-urban lines, not party lines.

Because school districts’ fiscal year also begins July 1, they need to know in advance how much money they can expect. Brown had proposed to commit $1.6 billion next year to start funding the formula.

It still may be possible to get the governor’s plan through policy committees in time, said Simpson, but “it would require a lot of effort to get it done.” Another option would be to delay the start of the funding for a year while working out details. “If the choice is between getting the plan done quickly or getting it right, I’d say take the time to get it right,” Simpson said. Simpson expects the Assembly Budget and Education committees to coordinate their efforts. Next Tuesday, the education subcommittee of the Budget Committee, chaired by Assemblymember Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, will hold its next hearing on the finance plan (go here for the agenda).

Jonathan Kaplan, senior policy analyst with the California Budget Project, who supports Brown’s plan overall, agreed that “there clearly is need for a robust review, but this must be balanced by moving expeditiously to get more money” to children targeted by the plan. “There probably still are ways to make it work” as long as the review doesn’t become a tactic for delay, he said.

State Board of Education President Michael Kirst, a professor emeritus from Stanford who co-wrote the paper on which Brown based his formula and advocates it, was unfazed by the latest twist. He said it was up to the Legislature to decide how to handle the proposal. “They have every right to consider what committee to put this through,” he said Thursday. But the Department of Finance’s position is that aspects of the Local Control Funding Formula must be included as part of the budget, he said.

Brown’s plan would eliminate dozens of “categorical” programs – teacher training, adult education, smaller class sizes among them – and advocates for those programs worry that without a funding requirement districts would no longer fund them. The funding formula would also shift decision making from Sacramento to local districts – a huge change in accountability. It would create funding differences of thousands of dollars per student. But time is tight, with three months before the start of the fiscal year, for Buchanan’s committee and the Senate counterpart, chaired by Sen. Carol Liu, D-Pasadena, to explore the impact of all of these aspects, plus alternatives.

In an interview with EdSource Today last year, Buchanan expressed broader concerns as well: Brown’s plan, she said, “should be handled through policy committees; but I also think, if you’re talking about such a major change to how we fund schools in the state of California, it’s more than just a bill. You need to really put some work into it, to determine, again, what is the cost to educate a child? Where are we now? Where do we want to be? And what’s the right path to get there?”

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