Switch to weighted funding

Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing to overhaul how K-12 schools are funded, starting with next year’s budget. The move to a “weighted pupil funding” formula would vastly simplify the current complicated and inequitable funding system and shift responsibility for most spending decisions to the local level. It also holds the promise of providing extra money for low-income students and English learners.

At the same time, it would wipe out dozens of protected or “categorical” programs, which would all be thrown into one pot and reallocated on a per-student basis.

Weighted student funding is the system that finance reformers, including State Board of Education President Michael Kirst, have advocated for years and that Brown himself called for in his campaign platform. Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, chair of the Assembly Education Committee, has been working on  a version of it for a year and has made passage of AB 18 her priority for this year.

(click twice to enlarge)
(click twice to enlarge)

But until it appeared on page 140 of his budget summary on Thursday (see wording at left), Brown had given no sign that he was ready to move forward with it.

The administration has not released details yet, so it’s too soon to say who would be “winners” and “losers.” But to ensure that districts are held financially harmless, the budget summary said the system would be phased in over five years. It also implied that few categoricals would be spared consolidation, including those with powerful backers, like the class-size reduction program favored by the California Teachers Association and Economic Impact Aid, which has diverted millions of dollars to Los Angeles Unified. An exception to consolidation would be federally funded special education and foster care.

Kirst said that the details would be negotiated with the Legislature, but that Brown would defend the concept and principles behind a new system. In an April 2008 brief, Kirst, together with former state Education Secretary Alan Bersin and then law professor and now state Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu, outlined the weighted pupil system that Brown is proposing.

A critical detail will be the percent of funding increase or “weight” that will be given to low-income students and English learners. Peter Birdsall, executive director of the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, who attended a short budget briefing Thursday, said that additional weight would be given to those students attending schools with heavy concentrations of disadvantaged students.

“It’s encouraging that the governor is taking on school finance reform and moving the system toward a more fair and coherent weighted student formula system that directly takes into account the needs of low income students and English learners,” said John Affeldt, managing attorney at the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates Inc. “We’ll have to see the details to know the extent to which his proposal will truly benefit the neediest students.

Wiping out mandates

Along with providing more flexibility with spending, Brown is proposing to eliminate half of the mandates imposed on K-12 schools and community colleges. (The budget summary does not list them.) And he wants to create a $200 million block grant to encourage districts to continue to follow the “optional” mandates that he is not dropping. There is a catch, however. Once districts accept the money, they must agree to follow the mandates covered by the block grant, which will include “core programs, including school and county office fiscal accountability reporting,” and “sensitive notification and school safety functions like pupil health screenings, immunization records, AIDS prevention, School Accountability Report Cards, and criminal background checks.”

Mandates are a sore subject with local officials, since they have had to fight for reimbursement and argue that they’ve been only partially compensated for the costs. Brown acknowledges this in the budget summary: “Many existing mandates fail to serve a compelling purpose. The mandates determination process takes years. Reimbursement costs are very often higher than anticipated and can vary greatly district by district. Further, the reimbursement process rewards inefficiency.”

Birdsall praised the shift of power from Sacramento to local districts. So did Bob Blattner, principal with Blattner & Associates, an education consulting firm based in Sacramento. For too long the state’s been laying down railroad track for districts to follow and then blaming them for where they end up,” he said. “Brown is acknowledging that decisions are often best made locally.”

But Brown is not letting districts completely off on their own. He is promising to couple flexibility with “a system of accountability measures that will be the basis for evaluating and rewarding school performance under this finance model.”

Along with the current state standardized tests, measures will include “locally developed assessments and qualitative measures of schools.” That’s basically what Brown promised when he vetoed Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s SB 547 last fall. That bill would have created new state accountability measures to deemphasize a narrow attention to standardized math and reading tests.

Kirst said that Brown has not yet made up his mind on the locally based measures. But the result, after shifting power from Sacramento to local districts, will be a “much thinner Ed Code,” he 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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