Less than a year after convincing voters to approve a multi-billion dollar tax increase for the state’s schools, Gov. Jerry Brown is on the verge of accomplishing a task that few California governors have dared to take on, let alone accomplish: reforming a school finance system that researchers and education advocates have for years labelled as inequitable, irrational and excessively complex.
Recognizing that it costs more to educate children with greater needs, Brown’s plan would funnel one in five education dollars to school districts based on the number of low-income students, English learners and foster children enrolled there.
The plan would affect millions of students. One in five students – 1.2 million – are classified as English learners, and almost half – close to 3 million students – are from sufficiently low-income backgrounds to qualify for free- or reduced-priced meals.
Victory for Brown – partial or complete – now seems inevitable, according to Sacramento insiders close to the legislative process.
When Brown first introduced his plan 18 months ago, it generated almost immediate opposition from most education groups, as well as resistance in the Legislature, where lawmakers insisted that the plan go through the regular legislative process rather than as part of the budget approval process.
Exactly a year ago, a potent coalition of education organizations, representing parents, teachers, administrators and school board members, issued a joint statement opposing his plan. The coalition said it would result “in some districts receiving additional funds at the expense of others.” Some also expressed concerns that if the plan were approved it would undermine the push to convince voters to approve the tax increases called for in Proposition 30 on the November ballot.
This year, the political – and economic – environment has been completely transformed.
With his fortunes vastly improved as a result of the passage of Prop. 30 against the backdrop of an improving economy, Brown reintroduced a revised version of his plan in January, making adjustments in response to criticisms and renaming its core feature from a “weighted student funding formula” to a “local control funding formula.”
He also made made passage of his plan the No. 1 priority on his legislative agenda, promising legislators who opposed it “the battle of their lives.”
So far, no major player on the education landscape one has come out directly in opposition to the core elements of his plan, although many are supporting it with reservations, or have proposed significant amendments to it.
Last year, the California Teachers Association opposed his plan, but this year has endorsed its goal of providing funding “on the basis of equity among all of California’s students and (providing) equal funding for students most in need,” even as it has expressed concerns about a number of its elements.
Remarkably, Brown appears to have victory in his sights despite not having completely resolved the issue of “winners and losers” under his plan. Brown has argued that there would be no winners or losers, just “relative winners,” as all districts will get more funds than they are getting now, just that some will receive more than others. But districts with a small number of high-needs students, especially in suburban areas, feel they would be disadvantaged under Brown’s plan, and that more of the projected billions of dollars in projected new school revenues in coming years should be included in the “base amount” going to all districts.
Even StudentsFirst, the organization started by former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who has typically promoted reforms at odds with Gov. Brown’s education agenda, last week called on supporters to urge their representatives in the Legislature to back what it called Brown’s “bold plan.” “Not only is the local control funding formula more equitable, but all schools will benefit under this plan,” the organization declared.
In the Legislature, Brown seems to have won the debate over whether the plan should be taken up as budget process, as he has pushed for, rather than having it to through the regular legislative committee process. Budget committees in both the Senate and Assembly have endorsed the central thrust of his plan – giving all districts a base amount, and on top of that directing funds to high needs children – but have recommended several key modifications.
The Senate, for example, has approved legislation (SB69) that would increase the base amount every school district would receive, while eliminating the more controversial “concentration factor” that would provide extra funds to districts with more than 50 percent high-needs student enrollment. At the same time, it would increase the “supplemental amount” that would go to all districts for each of their high-needs students.
Last week the latest version of the bill was approved with an unusual amount of Republican backing. Out of 11 Republicans in the Senate, three actually voted in favor of it, two didn’t vote, and only six voted against it.
The Assembly version calls for various amendments as well, including calling for additional spending on child care and increasing the amounts going to suburban districts. Although some tough bargaining is expected, legislative insiders say they expect to be able to work out their differences, and that some form of the school financing plan is likely to be approved over the next few weeks.
For the past dozen years, the nation’s reform agenda has been focused on rewarding or punishing schools for how their students do on test scores, and more recently, on linking teacher evaluations to how well their students perform on tests and other measures. Given its prominence as home to the nation’s largest school system, California’s new funding plan has the potential to broaden the reform agenda to include a closer look at what resources – financial and otherwise – schools need to educate their most disadvantaged students.
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