Joan Buchanan, the Democratic chair of the Assembly Education Committee, grilled administration officials at length Wednesday on Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to reform school funding. She wanted, without success, to get them to concede there are flaws and inconsistencies in the plan.
Buchanan’s intense questioning prompted a frustrated Assemblymember Das Williams, a fellow Democrat from Santa Barbara, to call for a shift in the discussion from “poking holes” in the plan to “doing what we can to make it work.”
Their exchange captured the split among Democrats and the education community between those, like Williams, who want to act now on Brown’s Local Control Funding initiative to redo a school funding system universally acknowledged to be irrational and inequitable, and those, like Buchanan, D-Alamo, who are struggling to understand the details of a complex plan hundreds of pages long.
“I feel like we have the opportunity of a lifetime here,” said Williams, a former community organizer. “I would vote for it if put to us today. Justice should not have to wait a year.”
While agreeing with Brown’s goal of directing more money to high-needs students and “the moral imperative to have these kids succeed,” Buchanan added, “We need to be clear how the plan works. We need to read the details; otherwise, there is an abdication of the Legislature’s responsibility.”
In this looming divide over finance reform, a pretty good predictor of support for the plan is how legislators’ school districts will fare. Buchanan, an 18-year school trustee with San Ramon Valley Unified, serves a largely suburban region. She maintains that her districts would not receive enough money under Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula to bring spending levels back to where they were before the recession in 2007-08.
Williams represents a diverse region of rich enclaves, like Montecito, and less affluent districts, like Oxnard, with a high proportion of low-income children, that would gain substantially. “My district is illustrative of inequities in funding,” he said. “We don’t have equal funding in education.”
Buchanan is far from alone in resisting pressure to push through reforms that have not been thoroughly vetted. Senate Democratic leaders also called this week for a year’s delay. Buchanan and Assemblymember Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, who chairs the Budget Committee’s education subcommittee, see technical challenges that need fixing and major policy questions that need thorough discussion.
Backers of the LCFF, like Williams, fear tactics of delay, death by 1,000 questions. Brown has made the LCFF his priority this year; supporters say adjustments can be made during the seven-year transition to the new system.
Buchanan and others say sweeping changes to the single largest source of state spending – about 40 percent of the state budget goes to education – must be done carefully.
Waiting for revisions in May
What’s not known at this point is to what extent the Brown administration is willing to modify the LCFF in the governor’s May revision of the state budget, out in about two weeks. At Wednesday’s hearing, Nicolas Schweizer, who’s in charge of education issues for the Department of Finance, and Sue Burr, back from retirement as executive director of the State Board of Education to help Brown out with the LCFF, were good poker players. Without hinting at any specific accommodations, they said the administration is weighing various suggestions.
Along with transferring Sacramento’s power over the purse to local districts, by ending most categorical or restricted programs, Brown is proposing to funnel about an extra third more money per student for each low-income child and English learner. In addition, Brown is proposing money on top of that for those districts in which high-needs students form a majority. Districts serving only disadvantaged students could potentially get 53 percent more money – more than $3,000 more per student – than districts with few high-needs students.
Buchanan, who did nearly all of the interrogating at the hearing, didn’t question LCFF’s underlying concept of providing equity in funding or the amount of the supplement for targeted students. But she did intensely question other aspects of the plan – most of which have been already raised in previous hearings or in analyses by the Legislative Analyst’s Office and the Public Policy Institute of California. They include:
- Size of the core grant for all students:
This is the most contentious issue – and one that Brown can resolve. He is proposing an average of $6,812 per student, which would restore the base funding in 2007-08, known as the revenue limit, and build in cost-of-living increases since then and moving forward. This excludes special education and a few other programs. But the base also does not include categorical money for programs like teacher training, textbooks and building maintenance, because categorical programs would disappear under the new system. Districts with high-needs students would get the equivalent of that money – and more – in the form of supplemental dollars they can spend as they want. But districts with few high-needs students would lose money they once had.
Buchanan pressed the point: “Does not every child deserve textbooks, every teacher deserve training? You can’t talk about local control if it doesn’t include funding.”
Schweizer said the administration would consider adding $200 to $300 more per student to the base. Others say it should be up to $500 – about $3 billion statewide – or more, depending on which categoricals are defined as essential for all students.
- Concentration grant:
Brown is proposing bonus dollars where high-needs students comprise a majority in a district to compensate for the impact of concentrated poverty. Senate Democrats are proposing to eliminate concentration grants. Buchanan instead suggested that the money be awarded to school sites, not districts. She cited Elk Grove Unified, where schools serving primarily disadvantaged students would get no concentration money because the overall district average is much lower. As a result, high-needs students in two schools with identical demographics but located in different districts would get different amounts of money.
Schweizer said the administration built its model on district allocations and was concerned about a possible inflation of school-site data. In a recent comment in EdSource Today, school consultant Rob Manwaring elaborated in objecting to school-site based grants. There would be, he wrote, a “horrible incentive to further segregate our schools and to end school choice programs like those in San Francisco that offer greater choice to low income students. Basically, under a school site concentration system, a district could make more money if it consolidates its low income students into some of its schools and keeps all of the middle class students in other schools.”
- Exempted categoricals:
Two large categorical programs totaling $1.3 billion – funding for desegregation programs, known as Targeted Instructional Improvement Block Grants, or TIIG, and home-to-school busing – would be kept intact with current distribution formulas. In the case of busing, the formula is outdated and fails to fund adequately districts that have grown in the past two decades. Thus, Pasadena gets $3 million while Palmdale, with a similar number of students, gets $300,000, Buchanan said. TIIG favors a handful of districts that sought the money years ago:
Los Angeles Unified gets more than $800 per student and San Jose Unified about $1,000 per student, compared with $8 per student in Santa Ana, with 91 percent disadvantaged students.
Schweizer cited the threat of lawsuits as justification for keeping the programs intact – a rationale that the LAO found unpersuasive, as did Buchanan and other committee members. With few exceptions, many court orders setting up desegregation programs have been lifted, newly elected Democratic Assemblymember Shirley Weber said. She urged the administration to confront the issue of TIIG. The “glaring inequities” that benefit a few districts are “a thorn in the side of my colleagues” and make it “harder to sell” the LCFF, she said.
- Accountability for spending:
To ensure that supplemental dollars are spent on targeted students, each district will be required to write a plan, which the county office of education will review, spelling out how money would be used to improve academic results for subgroups of students. Some advocates for minority students argue this won’t go far enough, particularly if the money doesn’t bring results.
At the hearing, Buchanan focused on another aspect: The accountability features will not kick in until the LCFF is fully funded, in an estimated seven years. In the interim, Schweizer acknowledged, “the fundamental premise is that districts should be trusted” to spend increasing amounts of money on targeted students.
“There is more accountability now than under the new system in the transition period,” Buchanan responded. The administration’s assumption “is unrealistic,” she said.
Buchanan plans an additional hearing on the accountability issue.
Several dozen patient observers waited for four hours Wednesday to give one minute of testimony. Among them was Michael Hulsizer, chief deputy of governmental affairs for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools and a supporter of Brown’s formula. “We think Finance is listening,” he said, “and are confident that the May revision will address concerns.”
A lot will ride on the outcome.