Weighted formula’s heavy load

Some of the “losers” under Gov. Jerry Brown’s school finance proposal said their piece in testimony Tuesday before a subcommittee of the Assembly Budget Committee.

A half-dozen superintendents from suburban and rural districts detailed how Brown’s weighted student formula, favoring districts with large numbers of English learners and low-income children, would harm them. Their plight made it clear why the Education Coalition is opposing Brown’s plan, and why, save for massive revisions, the governor’s major education initiative will likely go nowhere this year. None of the superintendents invited to testify were from districts that would greatly benefit from the plan.

“We agree with the governor that complexities (of the current system) should be simplified,” said Gary Stevens, assistant superintendent of Roseville Union Joint High School District. But “shortchanging suburban high school students makes no sense. Reform is needed but it must be effective or our students will be losers.”

Brown’s finance reform also had plenty of supporters at the hearing, but they were primarily a score of high school students from Oakland and San Jose, organized by Public Advocates, who had about 30 seconds each in public testimony for making the case that their schools lack the resources of schools in wealthier districts. They argued that the Legislature must require that districts getting extra money for disadvantaged students spend the dollars on those students.

It’s an important point – one that Brown has not dealt with directly. But it’s also a step ahead of the debate. There’s no consensus yet on how many dollars should be redistributed or on which needy students should get them – and how soon.

Brown wants to simplify the current funding system by ending categorical programs and redistributing the money to students of need. Every English learner or low-income student would get 37 percent more funding, and those districts with concentrations of disadvantaged students would get increasingly larger bonus percentages. A district with 90 percent disadvantaged students would get a 66 percent bonus per student, compared with a 15 percent per-student bonus for a district with 40 percent disadvantaged students. (See explanation of the plan.)

Brown’s formula is based on a plan proposed four years ago by State Board of Education President Michael Kirst and others, but with key differences. Brown’s base level of per-pupil spending is much lower; the poverty and EL supplements are higher; Kirst’s formula awarded more per-student aid to high school districts, as does the current system; and the administration’s formula, unlike Kirst’s, does not hold districts harmless, except for the first year of a six-year phase-in.

The result would be disastrous for Conejo Valley Unified, said Superintendent Jeffrey Baarstad. If it were fully implemented this year (which Brown is not proposing), the district would lose $18 million out of a $155 million budget. By 2017-18, the cut would grow to $36 million. That’s because Brown is proposing an initial base of $4,920, equivalent to the 2002 level of spending for the district, Baarstad said. And, with a student body that is 29 percent English learners or low-income, the weighted supplement would amount to only an additional 11 percent extra per student or $528 initially, compared with $3,276 per student in a district with 90 percent disadvantaged students.

There’s too much weight given to the concentration factor, Baarstad said. If additional Proposition 98 revenue over the next six years only goes to redistributing money and not restoring funding that all districts have lost in the past four years, “we will find ourselves among the poorest districts in the United States.”

Brown’s formula assumes a growth in funding of $16 billion or nearly 40 percent in six years, starting with voter approval of a tax increase in November. But if that fails, Brown is proposing an additional $450 per student cut. And if the Department of Finance’s revenue projections fall short, Baarstad and the other superintendents want to know how that would affect implementing the weighted student formula.

Backwards approach to reform

The chief problem with Brown’s formula, says Sacramento school consultant Bob Blattner, is that it is “reductive” instead of “additive.” ­Instead of first determining an adequate level of base funding for students and adding to it a supplemental amount for disadvantaged students, then calculating how much  new money would be needed, the administration’s proposal, Blattner wrote in an analysis, “rolled out in precisely the reverse order.” First it determined the available funding, which coincides with historically low levels, then it deducted the supplemental funding needed for targeted students. What was left was a base funding amount “far less than any reasonable estimation of what a base funding amount should be.”

Blattner and others are also questioning the assumptions and components of the weighted formula:

  • Justification for the 37 percent weight for needy students;
  • Whether a non-low-income English learner should get the same supplement as a low-income child;
  • Research behind the concentration factor and why the add-on should start at 50 percent, then rise sharply  so that a district with a 90 percent poverty/English learner population gets twice the supplement as a district with a 50 percent targeted population. The latter district may have two high schools with a heavy concentration of low-income students yet get less funding than a small district with only low-income students.

One could also argue that a district with a smattering of disadvantaged students needs more money per student to meet their needs.

The concentration factor should be based on data, Blattner said, should not be arbitrary – a “Laffer curve on the back of a napkin in the Capitol cafeteria,” referring to the offhand drawing that became the basis for Ronald Reagan’s supply-side ec0n0mics.

The criticisms of the specific plan don’t rebut the need for a weighted formula and additional money for English learners and poor children. But they do point to what’s been missing: a policy debate over how the formula should be designed and phased in.

What’s needed, said Julia Brownley, chair of the Assembly Education Committee, is a balance between restored funding and equitable funding.

For more than a year, Brownley has been looking at finance reform through AB 18. It would also channel extra money to English learners and poor children, but through a block grant approach. It would require up-front accountability for spending the money on those students.

Brownley hasn’t settled on a weight or a timeline for phasing it in, but she says she plans to continue working on the bill. Brown’s proposal has served as “a bucket of cold water,” waking up people to the importance of finance reform, she said yesterday. That, in turn, could spur action on AB 18 this year, or turn off legislators to trying.

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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