Weighted formula in waiting

With the cancellation of today’s joint hearing with the Senate and Assembly Education Committees, the Brown administration has dodged – for now – tough questioning on the governor’s plan for a weighted student formula.

Today’s session would have been the first formal look by the two key education policy committees at the sweeping school finance proposals that Brown announced in his budget in January.

But Brown administration officials have implied that the plan, which would funnel substantially more money to low-income students and English learners, is still being adjusted as part of the governor’s revised budget that he will release next week. So it was premature to scrutinize district-by-district impact of a formula that could significantly change.

Still, the cancellation means that it will likely be mid-June – a few weeks before the deadline for passing the budget itself – before the two Education Committees will be able to question the administration about the revenue assumptions, the rationale behind the formula, and ramifications of removing spending restrictions on nearly all categorical programs.

The Education Coalition, consisting of associations representing unions, school boards, school administrators, and the state PTA, oppose moving on finance reform this year, on the grounds that long-suffering districts need money restored before redistributing what they now have. Brown has proposed phasing in finance reform over six years, but the Ed Coalition remains resistant and worried about the impact of a major reform on the tax initiative voters will consider in November (i.e., don’t rock the boat now).

Legislative leaders feel that Brown is trying to jam them by making the formula part of his budget, rather than a separate policy bill that would be picked apart, probably over two years. You can sense some frustration in questions that Assembly Education Committee Chair Julia Brownley and Senate Education Committee Chair Alan Lowenthal sent to the Department of Finance and others invited to participate in the hearing:

  • By eliminating virtually all of the categorical programs (adult ed, prof devel, GATE, ELA, etc.), the Governor’s proposal  essentially deregulates public school funding. If we’re going to do this, shouldn’t we also have a comprehensive, robust accountability system to create the incentives to make sure we get the outcomes we want? (Sue Burr, executive director of the State Board of Education, has said that the State Board will create new accountability measures over the next year.)
  • If in November the voters reject new revenues for schools, how do we move forward with this transition?
  • What is the rationale for not  having funds “follow pupils” but rather directing them to districts to spend as they please? … how can the state be sure resources intended for English learners don’t get spent on something else?

Brown is proposing to fund every student a base amount – $4,920 to start – and then add “weights,” with an extra 37 cents for every dollar going to poor kids and English learners, with double that for districts with heavy concentrations of the disadvantaged.  The committee wants the administration to justify the weights and to present a district-by-district breakdown showing how the formula would work, were it fully implemented this year. That would show clear winners and losers. So far, the administration has offered a first pass showing how it would work in 2017-18; by then, natural increases in revenue would mitigate the effect on “the losers,” those districts with few disadvantaged students.

Even though mainstream ed groups are critical, Brown is counting on the support of advocacy groups and of legislators, thus far quiet, representing districts that clearly would benefit from weighted student funding: Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Santa Ana.

This shows the impact on districts of a weighted student formula once fully implemented in 2017-18 under the governor's proposal in January, although aspects are likely to change in his revsed budget. By 2017, the Department of Finance is predicting that education revenues will increase 41 percent on their own. So the biggest effect would be on districts whose revenues would increase less than 30 percent (the 350 "losers" serving 28 percent of students) or more than 50 percent (the 277 district "winners" serving 32 percent of students). Source: PPIC. (Click to enlarge.)
This shows the impact on districts of a weighted student formula once fully implemented in 2017-18 under the governor's proposal in January, although aspects are likely to change in his revsed budget. By 2017, the Department of Finance is predicting that education revenues will increase 41 percent on their own. So the biggest effect would be on districts whose revenues would increase less than 30 percent (the 350 "losers" serving 28 percent of students) or more than 50 percent (the 277 district "winners" serving 32 percent of students). Source: PPIC. (Click to enlarge.)

Last week his plan was praised by three researchers affiliated with the Public Policy Institute of California. “Overall, Governor Brown’s weighted pupil-funding formula is a bold proposal with clear priorities,” wrote Heather Rose, Jon Sonstelie, and Margaret Weston in an analysis of the governor’s proposal.

Their 12-page analysis gives a good overview of Brown’s plan and a breakdown of the overall impact on the state’s school districts by 2017-18, when the Department of Finance is projecting that increased state revenues will boost per-student funding 41 percent.

According to the Rose, Sonstelie, and Weston analysis, 45 percent of the state’s students, attending 317 school districts, will be funded within 10 percentage points of the 41 percent increase (this assumes Brown’s tax initiative passes in November). But a third of students, attending 366 districts, would see per-student funding increases of more than 50 percent. For students attending districts with nearly 100 percent disadvantaged students, that would yield $4,000 to $5,000 more per student by 2017-18.

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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