Assembly: Yes, fix school funding

A bill that would become the foundation for restructuring the state’s K-12 funding system passed the Assembly this week with near unanimity (a vote of 74-2) – a sign that legislators agree with the concept and are willing to let important details be worked out in coming months.

AB 18, sponsored by Julia Brownley, a Santa Monica Democrat who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, would begin to fix a system that study after study has concluded is complex, confusing, irrational, and, by ignoring the high cost of educating the poor and English learners, inequitable.

It is also underfunded, although the bill itself neither provides additional funding overall nor explicitly calls for it. It would, however, put in place what Brownley calls “the architecture” for the Legislature to shift priorities to students in need, when more money under Proposition 98 becomes available in coming years.

It also would make divvying up of education dollars more transparent and efficient by giving school districts control over billions of dollars whose uses have been dictated by Sacramento through dozens of categorical grants; they comprise about a third of school spending.

In exchange for whacking their budgets, the Legislature already has given districts flexibility over some categorical money. AB 18 would accelerate the process and make flexibility permanent.

Goal: Weighted student formula for poor children

Starting in 2015-16, Prop 98 would go into three piles of money based on student enrollment, with special education walled off into a separate pot.

  • Base or general spending, the current revenue limit funding, the largest of the three. Folded into this would be about two dozen categorical programs, worth $2.4 billion, including home-to-school transportation, community day schools, civic education, gifted and talented programs, arts and music programs, and much of adult education.
  • Targeted Student Equity Funding, with about eight programs now aimed at poor students and English learners, including Economic Impact Aid, the largest. Totaling $2.1 billion, this would be the basis for a much talked about weighted student formula, the extra per-student funding for children in need that the Legislature could make its top funding priority in coming years.  Gov. Schwarzenegger’s bipartisan Committee on Education Excellence estimated that adequately funding low-income students, many of whom are English learners, would require an extra 20 percent per student. Assembly Education Committee staff haven’t yet determined if the Targeted Student Equity figure, as now funded, comes close to the 20 percent weight; however, it probably comes up  short.
  • Quality Instruction Funding, combining the popular class-size reduction program and eight other categorical programs, now funded at $1.8 billion, including teacher mentoring and training programs. It could be used for teacher recruitment and retention programs, teacher training, and, assuming districts become bolder, paying for more comprehensive teacher and principal evaluations, or smaller classes, however districts define them. (It’s not clear to me why class-size reduction – a favorite of the California Teachers Association – was thrown into this pile.)

To prevent a food fight among potential winners and losers, Brownley would guarantee every district its current funding level in the first year, and her bill would not affect the affluent basic aid districts that get surplus funding from property taxes. But future legislatures, Brownley said in an interview, may begin to funnel more money into the weighted student funding or professional development.

Open to negotiations

AB 18 remains “a work in progress,” said Brownley, who is continuing to meet with defenders of existing categorical programs and advocates for low-income and English learners.

Among issues on the table:

  • Should some programs be protected? Adult education is an obvious example. Given flexibility, 80 percent of districts surveyed have cut adult ed money, some severely. Few districts spend dollars any longer on gifted and talented children.
  • Are categoricals in the right pot? Money for tutoring and extra programs for the high school exit exam, primarily benefiting low-income students, could easily be added to the weighted student formula money instead of base revenue.
  • How will the state hold districts accountable for spending professional development money for that purpose, or ensure that money for textbooks and qualified teachers for low-income children, won under the Williams case or established through categorical programs, will be spent on those children?
  • Will there be enough weight given to English learners and low-income students? Some groups like Public Advocates, which have called for finance reform for years – and are currently suing over it – are supportive of the process, and want to see how the weighted student formula ends up, said Liz Guillen, Director of  Legislative and Community affairs.

The one group – and a powerful one – that already is opposed to AB 18 is the California Teachers Association. Spokesman Mike Myslinksi said CTA has two concerns. “There needs to be more research about what the reforms and added  flexibility will mean for students before adopting them,” he said. Also, “now is not the time for broad financial reforms – not until adequate resources are in place, and there is adequate money for clean and safe schools.”

Brownley said she agreed that attention must be paid to potential consequences, which is why she continues to meet with education groups on the bill. However, now, in anticipation of more money in coming years, “the timing could not be more perfect.”

“If we continue to invest in a broken system, we will not get the outcomes we want. Let us change to a more rational, equitable, and effective system now,” she said.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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