Big changes to weighted formula

Responding to criticisms of his plan for school finance reform, Gov. Jerry Brown has significantly revised his weighted student formula, raising the base amount that all districts will receive, reducing the differences between district “winners” and “losers” by reducing extra money for disadvantaged students, assuring districts they will be repaid for past budget cuts, and adding contingencies in case optimistic revenue projects come up short.

State Board of Education President Michael Kirst, who four years ago co-developed a weighted student formula on which this proposal is based, said the administration incorporated most of the suggestions that it received. “I think this is a much better proposal and the one to frame the debate rather than the initial plan with flaws and omissions,” Kirst said.

It may not be enough to win over the mainstream groups in the Education Coalition, which opposed the governor’s first proposal. California Teachers Association President Dean Vogel said in a statement, “CTA also continues to have concerns about changing the school funding formula in these uncertain times. Moving toward a funding formula that creates a system of winners and losers for students will only add to the challenges local schools are facing.” And California School Boards Association President Jill Wynns expressed similar reservations about the timing of the proposal, following years of budget cuts. “There are changes in the direction we like; that does not mean we want it done now.”

But Brown wants to see the framework for his financing plan passed this year, even though he is proposing a seven-year phase-in, with little impact over the next two years. That’s because it will take  only a majority of the Legislature to enact a weighted student formula, but then two-thirds – to overcome his veto – to amend it.

Brown is proposing to simplify the current system, with dozens of quirky, historically rooted categorical grants and unequal district allocations. He would fund a uniform base grant and add extra money for every poor child and every English learner who’s not poor. Nearly every categorical program would end; districts would have flexibility to spend state money as they saw fit.

Brown’s formula assumes that the tax increase he is proposing in November will pass, and K-12 schools and community colleges will see $17 billion more in revenue at the end of four years.. Here are the changes Brown is proposing:

  • Higher base, lower weights. Brown had proposed a base of $4,920 per student with a 37 percent weight, an extra $1,820 for every low-income student and English learner. But he never explained where the 37 percent figure came from, and some suburban districts, with few disadvantaged students, would have gotten little more after seven years than they currently get. Brown is now proposing to raise the base about $500, to an average of $5,421, and lower the weight to 20 percent, to $1,084. That would be a 40 percent cut in extra funding.
  • Concentration factor. Assuming that concentrations of English learners and poor children pose extra challenges, Brown proposed to progressively increase the weights for districts with large percentages of disadvantaged students. But he’d cut the bonus 40 percent as well. Districts with 50 percent disadvantaged students would receive an extra 4 percent instead of 7.2 percent. Districts where all students are poor and English learners combined would get an extra 20 percent instead of 37 percent.
  • Deficit factor. Brown now explicitly says districts will be repaid for past cuts and lost cost-of-living raises due them before the weighted student formula is fully phased in. It wasn’t clear in the first proposal if this amount, amounting to 20 percent of current funding and known as the deficit factor, would be reimbursed.
  • Grade span differentials. Brown had proposed a uniform weight of $4,920, which hurt high school districts, which currently get more than unified or elementary districts. Brown is now proposing funding K-3 at $5,466  per student, grades 4-6 at $4,934 per student, grades 7-8 at $5,081, and high school at $5,887. The K-3 figure includes what the state had been paying for class size reduction; districts can spend the money however they want.
  • Targeted Instructional Improvement Grant (TIIG) and Home-to-School Transportation dollars. These two categorical grants total nearly $1.5 billion. TIIG, the larger of the two, funded dollars to districts that settled old desegregation suits. Los Angeles alone gets $460 million, or about $700 per student. Brown had proposed ending the categoricals and redistributing the money through the weighted student formula. That would have created huge losses for rural districts with large bus expenditures and many poor kids, and, in the case of TIIG, for Los Angeles and a handful of TIIG’s big beneficiaries. TIIG and transportation funding are not equitably distributed. The formula for transportation was frozen years ago, so some fast-growing districts have gotten little money. TIIG funding is a historical artifact; some districts actively sought the money and some, with large numbers of kids of color, did not. But bowing to the political reality that no weighted formula will pass without Los Angeles’ support, Brown is proposing to preserve the current amounts that TIIG districts receive. “We cannot repeal all of history,” Kirst acknowledged.
  • Longer implementation. Instead of phasing in the formula over six years, it will now be seven.
  • Contingency funding. The weighted formula will be delayed if projected revenues come up short. Implementation will stop at 80 percent and wait for funding to catch up.
  • Accountability. This will continue to be a point of contention. Advocates for disadvantaged students want guarantees that extra money that districts get for poor kids and English learners will be spent on them at the schools they attend. But Brown is not proposing to track the dollars once they get to the district office. The State Board is considering new transparency rules so that parents and districts can document expenditures. Kirst said that the State Board may consider requiring districts to sign assurances on how they will spend the money. This will be determined over the next year.

The Department of Finance has not said when it would release a district breakdown of allocations under the new formula. Only then will it become clear whether the formula is rational and whether Brown may have the votes to get it passed.

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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