Gov. Jerry Brown won’t speak the words “weighted student funding formula” when he presents a new state budget next week, along with his plan to refashion the state’s complex and inequitable school finance system. The concept of funneling more education dollars to high-needs children is very much alive, and Brown will press the Legislature to act on it this year. But rebranding his plan to reform school finance is one of the changes that the governor will make to seek more support than he got last year when he introduced a similar plan.
Department of Finance officials and Brown’s advisers won’t disclose the new name. But they say the governor wants to clear up misperceptions associated with a “weighted student formula” and to stress key features of the plan: transferring accountability and responsibility for spending decisions from Sacramento to local school boards, freeing up dollars through flexibility and simplifying an inscrutably complex funding system.
Brown’s weighted student formula, based on a proposal that State Board of Education President Michael Kirst co-authored in 2008, failed to gain traction last year. Legislators resisted making sweeping changes in an election year with a tax increase on the ballot. Suburban districts complained that too much money would be redistributed at their expense; they will likely remain the toughest sell.
The new plan will be fundamentally similar to the old one, built on two features: giving districts near-total control over billions of dollars by ending state-dictated, restricted “categorical programs,” and directing a portion of the newly liberated dollars to low-income students and English learners. Districts with large concentrations of those students would get extra “weights”: bonus dollars, ranging from hundreds of dollars to potentially several thousand dollars per student.
State Finance Department officials said that some had misunderstood “weighted student formula” to imply that the extra dollars would follow each individual student from school to school, like a voucher. But extra money would be allocated based on numbers of disadvantaged students per district, not per school, and local school boards, not school site administrators, would decide how the money would be spent. This may not satisfy advocacy groups who want more assurance that dollars would be end up in the schools that high-needs children attend and that they will be directly spent on them.
Three times in November, Brown’s advisers met with legislative staff, district officials and advocacy groups to solicit suggestions. Next week Brown will address some of their concerns. Brown will likely raise the base funding per student for all districts, and his advisers say that by the time Prop. 30 expires in six years, districts will be repaid all of the money they have lost from budget cuts in the past five years, including cost-of-living adjustments. The failure to make this commitment explicit last year rattled many districts.
Brown must strike a balance between increasing the base funding for all students without substantially cutting the add-on dollars for targeted children. He’ll create a pot for this by ending additional categorical programs, including subsidies for small elementary classes, totaling several billions dollars. But he’ll also face stiff resistance from defenders of the categorical programs, including rural districts that fear losing funding for bus transportation and districts that have reaped with a windfall of dollars once pegged for desegregation programs ($460 million for Los Angeles Unified alone). In his plan last year, Brown carved out exceptions allowing these districts to keep what they’ve got. The more exceptions he makes, the less room he has to maneuver.
A change of the magnitude that Brown envisions will not come easily. Advocates say they sense a receptivity to reform with the passage of Prop. 30 and the administration’s openness to revisions (see the column by Ted Lempert in today’s EdSource Today). Brown’s challenge will be to convince legislators that all districts, including those that will “lose” dollars under the new formula, will be better off with a more rational, simpler and equitable way of funding schools.