First, keep the lights on

Given more control over how they could spend state money, school districts not surprisingly chose survival over experimentation. And if legislators want otherwise – to encourage districts to innovate or target money on low-achieving students – then they should be more explicit about their intentions.

That was the main finding and chief recommendation of a study of districts’ flexible spending last year by the RAND Corporation and researchers with the University of California. The results are consistent with annual surveys by the Legislative Analyst’s Office the past two years.

The study – also a survey, of chief financial officers in 223 districts – diagnosed  how districts spent their share of $4.5 billion in previously earmarked spending. That encompassed 40 of 60 categorical programs and slightly less than a quarter of the $19 billion in total restricted spending that the Legislature made flexible in 2009.

Longtime advocates of unloosing control from Sacramento had speculated that districts might use deregulated  spending to “make focused investments in new instructional approaches to meet local needs” or push decision-making to the school site level. They wondered whether vocal, well-organized groups – educated parents or unions – would dominate control over spending, aggravating disparities in student spending.

But none of this happened to a great extent. (There is an interesting experiment on school-based budgeting in Los Angeles Unified and Twin Rivers Unified, which contributors to TOP-Ed have written about here and here.) Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cut categorical programs 20 percent in 2009 when instituting flexibility, and total K-12 spending has been cut 18 percent since 2007-08. As a result, districts “swept” restricted dollars into their general funds in order to keep solvent and prevent additional layoffs, the study found. Money that had been earmarked for teacher and staff training and for general school improvement was largely diverted. Adult education was cut severely in many districts that had the programs.

“Hopes of some advocates that local control would spur widespread innovation or a new focus on classroom improvements simply proved unrealistic,” the study’s co-author, Bruce Fuller, a co-director of the Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), said in a news release.

However, the study also found that “about one-third (of districts) reported that aligning spending with ‘school improvement goals’ was a high priority, and a few reported allocating newly flexible dollars to instructional reforms.” The latter were mainly urban school districts.

Lost accountability

The study has implications moving forward. Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed shifting most categorical dollars, including the money already flexed, into a weighted student funding formula that would shift significant spending to low-income students and English learners. Brown’s proposal has run into opposition based on the distribution formula. But advocates for poor children also have called on Brown to include assurances that the extra dollars would be spent on them and that local parent and English learner school committees be given a role in overseeing the dollars. The groups, which included the Education Trust-West and Public Advocates, stated their position in a June 14 letter to Brown.

Another approach could be a block grant, in which districts have latitude to spend as they choose within parameters, such as designating money broadly for professional development. Assemblymember Julia Brownley, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, took that approach in AB 18, a variation of a weighted student formula.

RAND and the LAO had to rely on district surveys, because the state didn’t force districts to report how they spent formerly restricted dollars. The RAND-UC report recommends that the state Department of Education require this and that legislators require that flexibility be evaluated to determine which students and which programs benefited and which did not. Among the questions worth asking:

  • “What happens to programs whose funds are most often swept up, such as art and music?”
  • “How do changes in adult education funding affect communities and other institutions providing such services?”

Consider a new equity meter to measure closing the achievement gap

So here’s a question: If the No Child Left Behind law really does go away, and if we really do adopt a whole new set of tests, are we still “closing the achievement gap”?

For years now, if someone said their goal was “equity,” it was a fair bet that their work was to close the gap on the California Standards Tests. Of course, there have been skeptics who argued that the test was too narrow and pointed out that the test is not sufficiently tied to the real-world goals of “college and career readiness.” But most of the equity work of the past decade has focused on strategies to boost the test scores of chronically low-performing students, increase enrollment and success in “gatekeeper” courses like algebra, and increase the number of students who are “college and career ready” – for example through policies about enrollment in “A-G” courses or the adoption of what are now called “Linked Learning” approaches.

All of these strategies seem important. All appear to yield gains on the specific metrics to which they are aligned. Yet after a decade or more of work, do we have a more equitable system of schools in this nation? I think most observers would say no.

We have some schools and even more classrooms that are more equitable; a few of these dramatically so. This is progress and worth celebrating, especially since this work is an uphill battle in a society in which the distribution of income and opportunity is becoming less and less equitable. But despite hard work by many people, we do not yet have a dramatically more equitable system of schools, and such a system is badly needed. And it is only by creating a far more equitable system of schools that the public education system can be what this nation needs it to be: not just the engine of our economy but also the backbone of our democracy and the route for individuals to achieve their own American dream.

What would we accept as evidence that education systems were becoming more equitable? This is actually an important practical question as California embarks on the task of revising the Public Schools Accountability Act, which established the API. If we imagine a new-and-improved accountability system for California, test scores still matter, as do leading indicators of student learning like student attendance and engagement. But a narrow focus on these seems to have led us to pockets of excellence but not to a more equitable system of schools. Where else might we look? Once we start looking, we find achievement gaps – or perhaps we should call them equity gaps – in all sorts of places. If we were to build an “equity meter” that would be very sensitive to equity trends in an education system, what might we include? Here are some possibilities:

  • Resource allocation: Do poor students and students learning English receive more resources than others? Do struggling students, struggling teachers, and struggling schools receive extra support?
  • Community engagement: Do parents and community members feel connected to and engaged with the schools that serve them? Are schools able to respond to parent needs and concerns? Are parents living in poverty, parents with limited English, and parents of color equally engaged?
  • Social capital for students: Are students supported by the kind of web or network of supportive adults that will help keep them in school and make them resilient in the face of life’s challenges? Are students living in poverty, students learning English, and students of color equally supported? Are they engaged in school?
  • Professional community for adults: Do all the adults in the system feel a sense of personal and professional efficacy, that they can bring their whole selves – hearts and minds – to work every day? Do adults feel accountable to students and parents, including those who don’t look like them? Do they feel accountable for educational outcomes for all of their students and for helping to build a more equitable school system?
  • Customer satisfaction and system responsiveness: Do parents and students feel satisfied with their schools?

It is easy to argue that these things might be important, but they aren’t easily measurable. That’s a problem. But if in the past we’ve settled for accurate measures of some of the wrong things, should we experiment with some less accurate measures of things that matter more, or at least that matter differently? As we move into a world in which the simple definition of equity as “closing the achievement gap” on a test no longer seems sufficient, we need to think differently about the goal of equity work: a far more equitable system of public schools in this nation.

Merrill Vargo is both an experienced academic and a practical expert in the field of school reform. Before founding Pivot Learning Partners (then known as the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, or BASRC) in 1995, Dr. Vargo spent nine years teaching English in a variety of settings, managed her own consulting firm, and served as executive director of the California Institute for School Improvement, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides staff development and policy analysis for educators. She served as Director of Regional Programs and Special Projects for the California Department of Education. She is also a member of Full Circle Fund.

Lawsuit over ‘nonsense’ EL program

In a special state Senate hearing last month, California’s system of classifying, reclassifying, and teaching English learners came under heavy criticism from educators and advocates, who cited inconsistent and ineffective policies and practices for teaching students who comprise one-quarter of the state’s schoolchildren. On Wednesday, parents and teachers in a small Central Valley town added an exclamation point to the criticism by filing suit against the state and their school district over a curriculum for English learners they say is damaging their children’s chances to learn to read and write.

The lawsuit, filed in Sacramento Superior Court by attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union in California, charges that 6,000-student Dinuba Unified and the state violated their children’s constitutional right to equal education opportunity and federal law mandating sound instruction for English learners. The district adopted, and the state rubber-stamped its approval of a curriculum that “contradicts everything we know about how children learn language,” ACLU attorney Mark Rosenbaum said in a statement. Teachers in the district who have taught Second Language Acquisition Development Instruction, or SLADI, concluded it was “nonsense,” the lawsuit said.

The ACLU is asking the court to order the district to stop using the program and the state to follow the law and thoroughly evaluate and monitor programs that districts adopt for English learners. Through the lawsuit, attorneys are prodding the state Department of Education and the State Board of Education, which is also a defendant, to begin to face up to flaws in the system for English learners. “As Dinuba goes, so goes the state of California in terms of English learners.”

More than half of elementary school English learners score below basic on the state’s English and math tests. Only 56 percent graduate from high school, and annually only one in ten English learners is redesignated as fluent in English and no longer needing extra help.

In naming Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson as a defendant, the ACLU also quoted from Torlakson’s Blueprint for Great Schools. English learners, it says on the CDE website, “fall further behind the longer they are in California schools, as do low-income students. The curriculum and teaching supports currently in place are not preparing these students for the higher-order skills expected in high school and beyond.”

In a short statement, the state Department of Education said it was reviewing the allegations, then added, “It is unfortunate that the parties chose to file suit rather than making a good-faith effort to meet with state officials to address their concerns.” Since Dinuba Unified has been a Program Improvement district for a half-dozen years for failing to make its standardized test targets under the No Child Left Behind law, the lawsuit notes that the district, through consultants, must approve the curriculums that the district uses for English learners and verify that teachers are trained in them. CDE spokesperson Paul Hefner said that he could not verify if the department sanctioned Dinuba’s use of SLADI.

Dinuba Unified declined comment as well on the allegations. In a statement, Superintendent Joe Hernandez said that he had a “productive conversation” on Wednesday with the plaintiffs, “and the parties have agreed to work together in good faith to avoid costly and excessive litigation.”

Dinuba is a city of 24,000 east of Route 99, midway between Fresno and Visalia. More than 90 percent of Dinuba Unified students are Hispanic and one third are English learners; 70 percent qualify for free or reduced lunches.

Syntax, not picture books, for SLADI kids

Adopted by the district in 2009, Second Language Acquisition Development Instruction is apparently an unorthodox and not a widely used curriculum for English learners. (ACLU’s Rosenbaum said he knew of no other district that uses it.)

SLADI takes a grammar- and spelling-intensive approach to learning English, starting with first and second graders, who learn parts of speech and sentence construction. What students don’t get is exposure to texts that are rich with vocabulary and picture books – fun stories that motivate children to want to learn to read, said Nona Rhea, a 23-year elementary teacher (15 of those years in Dinuba), who was trained in SLADI and has taught it for two years. She is also one of five teachers who signed on as plaintiffs, along with two children, their parents, and a resident of Dinuba worried about the district’s English language programs.

“It cost me sleep at night. I don’t want to see children separated from other kids where they don’t learn the state’s English language arts curriculum,” said Rhea. “I wouldn’t want it for my children or grandchildren.” It also has a scripted curriculum with diagrams of sentences and a K-6 vocabulary and an approach that is inappropriate for first and second graders, she said.

Rosenbaum called SLADI “a ‘Hunger Games’ approach to education whereby adults madly crush the futures of children. SLADI is the equivalent of attempting to teach children how to swim by having them memorize the chemical formula of water.” The district’s Q&A on its SLADI website says that two of the six principles of SLADI are: 5) “Language growth occurs in deliberately created states of productive discomfort. Students must be pushed to a level of discomfort; 6) Error correction is crucial for building language accuracy.”

Before the adoption of SLADI, English learners and English speakers were mixed in heterogeneous classes. Under SLADI, the least proficient English learners attend separate SLADI classes for 2-and-a-half hours daily for half a year, then return to regular classes in January. For more advanced students, as measured by CELDT, the California English Language Development Test, students are pulled out for 45 minutes daily.

The assumption was that students who went through SLADI could then be integrated back into the classroom. But these students have missed a half-year of the state curriculum, Rhea said, without extra help to catch up. “Students assume they are the problem, but they’re not.”

The lawsuit says that the two unnamed 8-year-old plaintiffs’ reading scores on CELDT regressed considerably after taking SLADI. One child was assigned the program in first and second grades. Both children’s parents say they’re worried their children have not learned how to read.

The lawsuit also says that test scores for English learners as a whole have declined as a result of SLADI. Last month the Dinuba Teachers Association took the position that the district should not have adopted a program that “defied accepted research and common sense,” the lawsuit said. The teachers added, “(F)or our K-2 students this is a backwards model that could prove detrimental to their futures. Teachers cannot reconcile this in their minds and hearts.”

Figuring districts’ weighted funding

The state Department of Finance has released the district allocations under Gov. Jerry Brown’s revised plan for weighted student funding that shaves off the peaks, fills in the valleys, and includes other changes that make allotments flatter, arguably fairer, and potentially more politically palatable to those who criticized aspects of the formula.

The 77-page spreadsheet of district and charter school allocations doesn’t reveal – and inquiring minds will want to know – how districts compare with one another and with a statewide average once the formula is fully funded in 2018-19. But the raw numbers are there to calculate percentage increases and per-student spending, and Nick Schweizer, the program budget manager for education in the Department of Finance, did provide me with a district average increase, along with some cautions.

That figure is 47 percent, which is to say that between the base year of 2012-13 and full funding seven years later, the Department of Finance is projecting the average district’s growth under the formula, which covers most but not all education spending, will be 47 percent. This assumes that the tax increase proposed for November passes; the weighted student formula will be put off if it doesn’t. So, if your district revenues increase more than 47 percent, because you have large numbers of disadvantaged students, it’s more than likely a “winner” under the formula; if under 47 percent, it’s more than likely a “loser.” (Update: The Public Policy Institute of California on Tuesday released an analysis of the revised formula, with district figures. Go here.)

The impact of the proposed weighted student funding formula on the state's 10 largest districts. To determine a district's increases in per student funding from 2012-13 to full funding in 2018-19, divide columns 5 and 7 by student enrollment in column 4. Source: state Department of Finance. (click to enlarge)
The impact of the proposed weighted student funding formula on the state's 10 largest districts. To determine a district's increases in per-student funding from 2012-13 to full funding in 2018-19, divide columns 5 and 7 by student enrollment in column 4. Source: State Department of Finance. (Click to enlarge)

The chart at left, which shows the 10 largest districts, illustrates the impact. Santa Ana Unified, with 84 percent poor children and 56 percent English learners, will see district funding rise 71 percent (last column divided by fifth column) by 2018-19, and per-student funding rise from $6,460 to $11,040. Capistrano Unified, with 10 percent English learners and 21 percent low-income students, will see district funding rise 38 percent and per-student funding increase from $6,052 to $8,388.

There are caveats to consider when comparing a district with the 47 percent statewide average:

& As Schweizer points out, this assumes that, absent the formula, nothing will have changed in the allocation of categorical or restricted money and general or revenue limit spending in seven years. That would be unlikely, given that the trend has been to cut or eliminate some categorical programs and increase the revenue limit;

& Some districts might get less than 47 percent and still do better than they would have otherwise, if they are currently getting little categorical money. Each district’s individual circumstances vary somewhat;

& A district’s base in 2012-13 matters. Some districts, like Los Angeles Unified, will see per-student spending increase less than 47 percent. But they will start with a high base in 2012-13 and will end up doing well in 2018-19 (more on why later).

As for the 47 percent spending increase over seven years: Finance released a graph showing per-student funding, but only through 2015-16 (see chart), as far into the future as it makes detailed projections. Schweizer said that for the remaining three years, Finance conservatively projected 5 percent annual revenue increases. It also assumed flat district enrollments for the calculations. The four-year, ¼ percent sales tax increase that is built into the calculations ends in 2015-16, complicating the picture.

Significant changes from January’s formula

Under a weighted student formula, districts will receive a base funding per student plus a supplement based on the number of  low-income students and English learners. Brown proposed to fund the supplement, or weighted portion, from a pot of what has been categorical programs. Districts with few disadvantaged students will lose most if not all of that money, amounting to hundreds of dollars  per child.

Responding to criticisms of his initial proposal in January, the governor:

& Raised the base and added grade differentials, recognizing that high school districts have been getting higher funding and elementary schools have received subsidies for smaller classes. The base will be $5,466 per student for K-3, $4,934 for 4-6, $5,081 for 7-8, and $5,887 for 9-12. The K-3 funding will have the previous class-size reduction categorical money folded in, though districts will be free to use the dollars however they choose.

& Reduced the weighted amount for disadvantaged students from an extra 37 percent per child to 20 percent;

& Cut the bonus amount to districts with high concentrations of disadvantaged students from a maximum of 37 percent to a maximum of 20 percent for districts with 100 percent disadvantaged students. The concentration factor is phased in for districts with more than 50 percent disadvantaged populations. The administration has not offered the research behind the concentration factor. Putting that aside, allocating it on a districtwide basis overlooks the fact that individual schools in districts with low overall rates of disadvantaged students may have heavy concentrations of poor students and English learners.

An example is Mount Diablo Unified in Contra Costa County, with an overall average of 21 percent English learners and 36 percent low income. Mount Diablo High School has 71 percent low-income children and 43 percent English learners, while Ygnacio Valley Elementary has 79 percent low-income and 62 percent English learners. Their students will gain nothing because of the district’s average.)

& Phased in the program over seven years instead of six years, starting next year with 5 percent weighted student funding/95 percent current system.

& Paid off what districts are owed from recent years’ cuts and denied cost-of-living raises on the revenue limit portion, which is student funding minus categorical programs. This debt is called the deficit factor and now totals 22 percent of the revenue limit amount – a huge IOU.

Conditioning the full implementation of the weighted student funding on repayment of revenue limit dollars removes a major criticism of the plan. But that will not satisfy those districts with relatively few disadvantaged students, which will permanently see their categorical dollars shifted to more needy districts.

An example is Acalanes Union High School District in Contra Costa County, with a total of 5 percent English learners and low-income students. Under the January proposal, the district would actually have lost money under full funding. Under the latest plan, per-pupil spending will rise 23 percent, or about half of the state average, by 2018-19, because of  the loss of about $609 per student in categorical funds, a little less than 10 percent of total funding. Associate Superintendent Chris Learned says that he’s sympathetic to the need for weighted student funding, but that districts’ funding should be fully restored to the 2007-08 pre-recession level before phasing in the new system.

& Pulled two big categorical programs totaling nearly $2 billion (Correction: $1.3 billion) out of the weighted student distribution formula. These are the Home to School Transportation program and the Targeted Instructional Improvement Grant (TIIG), which is mainly money districts received to settle desegregation suits.Neither TIIG nor bus money has been equitably or rationally distributed among districts. But districts like Los Angeles Unified (where TIIG amounts to about $500 per student) and San Jose Unified (nearly $1,000 per student) would be crippled without the money. Brown is proposing to let districts keep what they’ve gotten for TIIG and transportation but no more. Over time, the impact of the money would diminish by not receiving yearly cost-of-living adjustments.

Under the revised formula, Los Angeles Unified’s per-student funding would increase 44 percent by 2018-19, slightly less than the state average, while San Bernardino’s funding would increase 58.5 percent (see chart), significantly above average. But because of TIIG, Los Angeles would start with a bigger base and end up in 2018-19 with $10,967 per student, about the same as San Bernardino’s $11,027.

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.

Should districts be handed full control over spending?

To mitigate the impact of substantially cutting spending for K-12 schools, the Legislature agreed to temporarily let school districts decide how to spend money that had been earmarked for dozens of special programs, from adult education to teacher training. Now, as part of his plan to reform how education is funded, Gov. Brown is proposing to go a big step further and give local districts total and permanent flexibility over nearly all of the remaining categorical programs. He also wants to drop two dozen mandated programs, leaving districts the option of continuing to fund them without state reimbursement. Is spending flexibility over billions of dollars, ending state control over what the Legislature deemed important priorities, wise policy? Can districts be trusted to do right by children? And suppose they don’t – what then?

To explore this issue, we asked four leaders with different perspectives: Jill Wynns, president of the California School Boards Association; John Affeldt, managing partner of the nonprofit law firm Public Advocates; Bob Wells, executive director of the Association of California  School Administrators; and Erin Gabel, Director of Government Affairs for State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. What do you think? Please share your views.

Jill Wynns: Local boards better prepared for tough decisions

Jill Wynns
Jill Wynns

When local school board members are faced with the agonizing necessity of cutting programs because of the severe funding cuts in recent years, they begin by discussing the priorities of the community. That’s a nice way of saying people yelling at us from the podium, labor organizations and board members debating bad choices and worse choices. We have increased class size, laid off teachers and school employees, ended programs, and even shortened the school year, denying our students the instruction and support that they need.

Ever since Proposition 13 transferred taxing authority to Sacramento, the Legislature maintained state control during healthy economic times when there’s money to start new programs they can put their names on, and advocated for local control when it’s time to cut. Of course it is hard to make destructive cuts that deny jobs to constituents and services to children. However, that is what school board members often face, lately too often. That is the reality for California school boards in a post-Prop 13 world. Sacramento will spend every penny when there is money, but when it is time to cut, that is our job.

How do we deal with the slashing of funds for K-12 education? One of the few tools available is the new categorical flexibility to spend money that used to be designated for specific purposes and programs. Most school districts have transferred this money into their general funds to minimize the impact of cuts on the classroom. Some have urged  that the flexibility be made permanent. Inevitably, there is growing advocacy for various programs to be reinstated and protected. The target of these efforts is the Legislature; the goal is the recategorizing of this funding.

After more than 30 years, why do we find it hard to trust local elected school board members to make thoughtful decisions? Who is better prepared to handle the tough choices that need to be made? Who knows the priorities of the local community better than those who spend their time talking to local parents, students, teachers, advocates, and citizens?

Organizations like the California and National School Boards Associations provide professional training for board members. Letting local boards make budget decisions will make it harder for advocates to influence the budget. Instead of making their case to a handful of legislators in a committee room in the Capitol, they will have to go to the affected  communities. Because the school boards are elected by the citizens in those communities, we can trust them to make the tough decisions that are best for their schools. That is our job, and we do it, no matter how difficult.

Jill Wynns is the president of the California School Boards Association. She has been on the San Francisco Board of Education since 1993, longer than any other school board member in San Francisco history. Her areas of expertise include California school finance, urban education and governance, charter schools, school health programs, healthy school nutrition programs, and labor-management cooperation.

John Affeldt: Give districts targeted – not total – flexibility

John Affeldt
John Affeldt

The governor’s bold weighted-student funding proposal is an idea that the Legislature needs to take on this year to correct the indefensible inequities and irrationalities in our school finance system. But, in line with a key “local control” component of the governor’s plan, is California really ready to turn over to districts total flexibility in how they spend all their dollars? I think not. Not only would it be wise to transition more cautiously, but directing districts to employ a targeted flexibility to help the neediest students and their schools actually has the potential to increase the very local control the governor hopes to spur.

Public Advocates and the many community groups with whom we work are willing to embrace a historic shift away from the constraints of categorical spending designed (initially, at least) to protect the neediest students from local neglect. The flexibility that districts gain, however, should apply to which programs and strategies to pursue, not to which students to help. Modifying the funding system to focus more explicitly on directing gap-closing resources and attention to the neediest students makes sense – but obviously only if those students are actually guaranteed they will benefit from the new resources. Targeted flexibility to the neediest schools, not total flexibility, is the way to ensure that.

Sacramento has the constitutional and moral obligation to ensure that our neediest students receive equal access to a high-quality education, especially when local adult priorities may head in other directions.  Especially when money becomes tight, funding in California seems naturally to flow away from low-income students and English learners. As well, on more than one occasion a largely white school board in a heavily Latino district has favored the majority white schools; other times, the issue has been a superintendent with an agenda focused elsewhere, such as on maximizing support to high performers; or a local union prioritizing salary increases across the district over serving the neediest schools; or an influential set of parents whose children are not among the neediest.

There are ways to target funds to the neediest schools without over-complexifying the system. A few modifications to how districts currently account for funds and report expenditures down to the site level, together with public hearing requirements when districts choose to deviate from spending weighted funds at the schools that “earned” them, would go a long way toward both ensuring weighted funds are spent on the neediest students and involving local communities in those decisions. Maintaining school site councils to oversee how weighted funds are spent at the school and incentivizing robust site-based budgeting as Twin Rivers employs could extend the governor’s notion of a new local control to every school site.

Now that would really be a profound democratic shift. Rather than only having local boards approve annual budgets, parents and students could engage in real ways on how public funds are best spent at their school and in their community.

John Affeldt is managing attorney at Public Advocates Inc., a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization that challenges the systemic causes of poverty and racial discrimination by strengthening community voices in public policy. He is a leading voice on educational equity issues and has been recognized by California Lawyer Magazine as a California Attorney of the Year, The Recorder as an Attorney of the Year, and a Leading Plaintiff Lawyer in America by Lawdragon Magazine.

Bob Wells: State should recognize its role, then get out of the way

Bob Wells
Bob Wells

Our association, the Association of California School Administrators, has long argued that those closest to students – teachers, principals, parents, local school superintendents, and school boards – know best how to allocate resources to meet local students’ needs. The state’s role is to set the academic standards, adopt the assessment to measure how well students and schools are meeting the standards, provide the necessary funding, and then step out of the way so educators and students can focus on academic achievement.

It’s quite clear that aligning instruction with the new Common Core standards and streamlining academic assessment systems are high priorities for educators in this state. But the current lack of adequate funding and the threat of additional trigger cuts create massive uncertainties for local school districts.

While we won’t know for a few weeks what the governor’s May Revision budget proposal will hold for schools, we are certain about the following:

  • Additional funding for education is necessary in order to prevent deeper cuts to the educational program;
  • There are far too many categorical programs, created at the state level, dictating how school dollars should be allocated at the local level;
  • Unfunded and unnecessary state and federal mandates on school district spending must be eliminated.

Gov. Brown is a proponent of ensuring that local districts, teachers, principals, superintendents, and school boards have broad flexibility in determining how to allocate funding for their schools and students. He wants to eliminate categorical programs and abolish unnecessary mandates. We agree with his assertion that local school districts know best how to determine where resources should be allocated to improve learning.

The current school system has successfully served millions of students, but it also has failed millions, especially poor children and children of color. The time is long overdue for a broad discussion about measures necessary for equitable distribution of resources to meet all of our students’ needs.

Policy discussions about school funding flexibility must allow for timely debate. Determining how to streamline categorical programs, eliminate mandates, and allocate new resources must focus on what’s best for all students. Moreover, funding flexibility must be coupled with a robust accountability system to ensure all students are beneficiaries of fiscal reform.

Bob Wells has been executive director of the Association of California School Administrators since 1998. He has strengthened ACSA’s role as a leader on issues related to leadership coaching and teaching and learning and has sharpened its ability to influence public policy. He has been honored for his leadership by such entities as the American Association of Society Executives, California Council for Adult Education, California Latino Superintendents and Administrators, and the PTA.

Erin Gabel: Grave concern about unintended consequences

Erin Gabel
Erin Gabel

Regardless of the fiscal climate, it makes sense to consider whether lifting policy and funding restrictions would result in better outcomes for California’s students.

However, the administration’s budget proposal to replace many current education mandates with complete program flexibility coupled with a weighted student formula requires thoughtful consideration about the state’s fundamental role in public education and the outcomes and access we expect for all our students.

While Superintendent Torlakson appreciates the proposal’s aim to focus and simplify school funding, we have some grave concerns about the potential for unintended consequences when mandates are replaced by complete flexibility in the context of a fiscal crisis and a narrow accountability system.

There are four principles to consider when weighing the worth of state education mandates and categorical programs:

  • The state should provide maximum flexibility at the local level, while holding local educational agencies accountable for results. It makes sense to re-visit some of the detailed, prescriptive requirements associated with some mandates and categoricals to see if the state interest can be served while providing local flexibility.
  • The state has a fundamental responsibility to ensure that the basics exist uniformly in all schools, and it should retain mandates necessary to ensure equity across the state and accountability to voters. The mandates in this category include student health and safety protections, access to education for underserved populations, academic standards and data collection on academic performance, and transparency to voters.
  • Mandates that are retained should be fully funded.
  • Finally, we must realize that the elimination of any current mandate now funded through the Commission on State Mandates process that is popular at the local level, in this fiscal environment, is a budget cut. Any school district that does opt into continuing a previously mandated program would be forced to either cut these services or others if the state decides not to provide funding.

Many successful and important state mandates and categoricals are at risk in the administration’s proposal, including our only system for tracking the childhood obesity epidemic, our state’s class size reduction program, the high school science graduation requirement, and our system of educational supports to help English language learners acquire English proficiency.

The current “flexibility” experiment in the state budget has devastated those categoricals allowed to be flexible. Adult education, gifted student education, and the arts at the local level have been eliminated or slashed due to hard choices in these hard economic times. Short of an adequate accountability system focused on student outcomes and a better economic climate, these budget proposals may mean more systemic losses at the state and local level under a mask of flexibility.

The administration’s budget proposal continues an important discussion on how to best streamline and simplify school funding, and the governor should be applauded for his leadership and for providing a starting place for a crucial and timely public debate. It is critical that any changes to mandated programs and categoricals be carefully considered in light of the state’s interests in student educational outcomes, health, safety, and accountability, and taken in context with the current fiscal climate.

Erin Gabel is the Director of Government Affairs for State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and the California Department of Education, and is responsible for the Superintendent’s and the Department’s involvement in state and federal budget and legislative processes. She previously was then-Assemblymember Torlakson’s Legislative Director, consulting on education and health policy and general legislation. Erin was one of the founding staff members of the Partnership for Children and Youth, as their first Children Nutrition Project Director, and now serves on their advisory board.

Low marks for Brown, not his ideas

California voters give Gov. Jerry Brown low marks overall for the way he has handled K-12 education. But, at the same time, they support some school reforms that he’s championing, including directing much of new revenue to poor students, according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll.

The poll, of 2,005 Californians earlier this month, revealed that a slim majority of 54 percent of likely voters

Most likely voters back Brown's tax initiative. Source: PPIC. Click to enlarge.
Most likely voters back Brown's tax initiative. Source: PPIC April poll. (Click to enlarge)

continues to support Brown’s proposed tax initiative in November, although nearly two-thirds of likely voters – and 89 percent of Democrats – back raising income taxes on the rich, the key element of the plan. What they don’t like, with only 46 percent for, 52 percent opposed, is the other piece of the proposal: raising the sales tax for schools (Brown is proposing one-quarter percent for four years).

More Democrats than Republicans, Latinos than whites, women than men back Brown's plan for higher taxes. Source: PPIC April poll. (Click to enlarge.)
More Democrats than Republicans, Latinos than whites, women than men back Brown's plan for higher taxes. Source: PPIC April poll. (Click to enlarge)

In January, 68 percent of likely voters and 72 percent of all adults told PPIC they would back taxing the rich and raising the sales tax to raise money for K-12 schools. That was before the initiative had a title and summary, which was read to poll respondents in the latest poll, so there’s no simple comparison. Nonetheless, the 14 percentage point drop, to 54 percent, is worth speculation. It could be that the complicated wording of the summary turned off some respondents, or perhaps it’s reservations after being told that only a piece of the money will go toward K-12 schools. The proposals also “guarantees funding for public safety services realigned from state to local governments” and “addresses the state’s budgetary problem by paying for other spending commitments.” Whatever the reason, Brown will face a hard sell getting the initiative passed in November.

There may be a competing initiative on the ballot that would fund schools exclusively, more in tune with what voters say they want. But the PPIC poll is hardly good news for civil rights attorney Molly Munger’s Our Children, Our Future initiative. It would raise an estimated $10 billion by raising the income tax for nearly all earners, and that wasn’t popular. Only 40 percent of likely voters in the PPIC poll favored a general income tax increase, with 57 percent opposed. Most Democrats back it (56 percent) but only 42 percent of independents and 21 percent of Republicans.

Brown can have the satisfaction of knowing Californians say he’s handling education better (27 percent approval, 23 percent among likely voters) than the Legislature (22 percent approval overall, an astounding 10 percent among likely voters).

Voters could be holding the Legislature responsible for the cuts to schools: 90 percent of Californians and 92 percent of likely voters agree that the state budget situation is creating a big problem or somewhat of a problem for K-12 schools. Nearly all Californians (87 percent) believe the “quality of education” in the state is at least somewhat of a problem, with 58 percent saying it’s a big problem. That same percentage of public school parents, a subset in the survey, said they are very concerned about teacher layoffs at their child’s school. And 78 percent of all likely voters disapprove of the automatic cuts to schools that Brown is suggesting if the tax initiative fails.

Positives on elements of reform

Brown has proposed a weighted student funding plan, a major overhaul of how schools are funded and governed. The poll doesn’t ask about that per se, but the survey did ask about the key elements of the plan. For the most part, Californians approve of them, in concept.

Flexibility and local control: More than four out of five Californians (82 percent) want local control of school spending decisions, either within school districts (48 percent) or at the school level (34 percent). Likely voters are even stronger on the issue: 53 percent want decisions at the district level and 36 percent at the school site. The one region where this is less so is Los Angeles, where only 40 percent want decisions made by the district; 21 percent (twice the state average) would prefer power to remain in Sacramento. That sign of lack of faith locally should be a warning to the Los Angeles Unified School Board, which is proposing a $298 parcel tax in November.

Targeted funding for poor students: Brown would funnel significant portions of new dollars to low-income students and English learners. Californians strongly support helping the former, less so for English learners, reflecting ambivalence toward illegal immigration.

Most Californians (82 percent) believe that school districts in lower-income areas of the state have fewer resources than school districts in wealthier areas, according to the poll. More than two-thirds (68 percent) of Californians say districts with high proportions of poor children should get a bigger share of new funding. But only about half (52 percent) say more money should go to English learners. (Since about three-quarters of English learners are also poor, we’re talking about roughly the same children.) For likely voters, the level of support drops to 54 percent for the poor and only 40 percent for English learners. Democrats provide the largest support across the board.

Other interesting findings in the poll:

  • Only about a third (36 percent) of Californians think that the state’s per pupil spending for K–12 public education is less than other states’ spending; 27 percent believe it’s above average. (In straight dollars, it’s 37th and 47th when regional costs of living are factored in.)
  • If a school construction bond were on the local ballot, 62 percent of residents 53 percent of likely voters  say they would vote yes ; it takes 55 percent for passage.
  • If a parcel tax to supplement funding of local schools were on the ballot, 60 percent of Californians and 51 percent of likely voters would support it – about the same level of support as in past years. It takes a 66 percent majority to pass one. Parcel taxes are regressive since the tax is the same, regardless of the value of the property. Support is about even across regions, although most parcel taxes have been approved by voters in Bay Area school districts. Latinos (72 percent) and Asians (65 percent), younger Californians, those without a high school diploma, renters and those with household incomes less than $40,000 indicate the most support for a parcel tax.

Bills seek to curb suspensions

The school discipline pendulum is on the move again, swinging from the uncompromising zero tolerance policies enacted in the aftermath of horrific massacres toward efforts to give school officials more discretion.

The state Senate and Assembly education committees yesterday approved half a dozen bills with variations on the common theme of cutting back on expulsions and out-of-school suspensions by implementing programs aimed at reducing disruptive and dangerous behavior.

The shifting legislative momentum follows a series of reports in recent weeks shedding light on the vast number of suspensions, racial disparities in how they’re applied, and their negative impact on students.

Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg discussing his bill to reduce suspensions. (Source:  Senate website) Click to enlarge.
Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg discussing his bill to reduce suspensions. (Source: Senate website) Click to enlarge.

During the 2009-10 academic year, there were more than 750,000 suspensions in California schools, according to recently released figures from the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education, which we first reported on here. That’s nearly as many as the entire population of San Francisco.

“It does seem like in past generations if a child was suspended from school it was a big deal. You took notice,” said Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg at a news conference earlier this week. “And now it is the default for too many schools to suspend a kid just because it’s the easier thing to do than to work with him.”

Suspensions by race and ethnicity. (Source:  The Civil Rights Project, UCLA). Click to enlarge.
Suspensions by race and ethnicity. (Source: The Civil Rights Project, UCLA). Click to enlarge.

The most severe punishment is disproportionately meted out by race and ethnicity. Suspended Education in California, an analysis of the federal data released a few days ago by The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, found that one out of every five African American students was suspended at least once in 2009-10, compared to one in 14 Latino students and one in 17 white students.

Steinberg’s bill, SB 1235, would require schools with suspensions rates above 25 percent overall or for a specific racial or ethnic group to implement a research-based alternative that holds the student accountable for their misbehavior but keeps them in school. (Click here for a list of all the bills).

“We know what happens,” said Steinberg, “A kid who doesn’t have to be suspended, who is suspended, stays home, falls further behind in school, is unsupervised, has a much greater chance of dropping out, and becomes a statistic.

A sweeping study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center looked at the records of every seventh grade student in Texas in 2000, 2001 and 2002, and found that 31 percent of students who were suspended or expelled between 7th and 12th grades were held back at least once, compared with 10 percent of all other students, and they were five times as likely to drop out of school.

Relationship between any disciplinary contact and repeating a grade or dropping out. (Source: Council of State Governments). Click to enlarge.
Relationship between any disciplinary contact and repeating a grade or dropping out. (Source: Council of State Governments). Click to enlarge.

Counterpoising those studies is research evaluating a decade of in-school interventions that show the success of programs like Restorative Justice and Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) in changing student behavior, teacher contentment and school climate.

After implementing a PBIS program at Pioneer High School in Woodland, principal Kerry Callahan told the Senate Education Committee there was a cultural shift at the school.  She recounted dealing with an out-of-control student who wouldn’t stop cursing at her.  Under the Education Code, Callahan could have suspended the girl; instead, she took her to the front office, calmed her down, and learned that the student’s mother had just abandoned the family.  Rather than sending her home to an emotionally raw environment, Callahan talked to the girl’s father about getting her into counseling, and got her some academic support.

Pioneer High also cut the number of suspension days in half from over 600 to about 300, boosted its Academic Performance Index by 37 points, reduced staff turnover by 50 percent, and improved attendance bringing in nearly $100,000 this year in additional ADA funds.

“We’ve been pushing to have this at every school,” said Laura Faer, the education rights director at Public Counsel Law Center, who has been working on this issue for nearly a decade.  “There is absolutely no excuse for not using alternatives that work for all children.”

Not everyone sees it that way.  Throughout Wednesday’s hearings, two legislative advocates for the Association of California School Administrators played tag team presenting testimony against each of the bills.   Laura Preston said ACSA isn’t opposed to everything in the bills, but is concerned that they may be going too far in the opposite direction.

Under current state law, school principals are required to immediately suspend students, and recommend expulsion, for five actions:

  • Possessing, selling or furnishing a firearm
  • Brandishing a knife at another person
  • Unlawfully selling a controlled substance
  • Committing or attempting to commit a sexual act
  • Possessing an explosive

For other behaviors, notably “willful disobedience,” principals have more discretion. Preston understands the frustration of parents and students when administrators don’t use common sense in those situations and suspend or expel students for talking back to teachers or bringing a butter knife in their lunchbox.

At the same time, the school violence that led to these zero tolerance policies hasn’t disappeared, said Preston, and removing some of that behavior from the mandatory expulsion category could be dangerous.

“Parents expect their children’s schools to be safe,” said Preston.  “There’s an expectation of every parent that when they send their kids to school they’re going to be in a safe environment and it’s our responsibility to ensure that they are.”

Preston is pushing for a conference committee with legislators and all the stakeholders, such as Public Counsel and other organizations actively working on this issue to try to refine and consolidate some of the bills. She said these conference committees were more routine before term limits, and provided everyone with an opportunity for thoughtful conversations.  Hopefully, that process will help them find a balance.

Layoff notices reach 20,000

Cynthia Dalmacio has a mnemonic device to keep track of how long she’s been teaching in Brisbane Elementary School District; one pink slip for each of her four years.  The latest one came yesterday, the state deadline for notifying teachers that they may not have a job in the next school year.

Brisbane teacher Cynthia Dalmacio received her fourth layoff notice in as many years. (photo by Mike Myslinski). Click to enlarge.
Brisbane teacher Cynthia Dalmacio received her fourth layoff notice in as many years. (photo by Mike Myslinski). Click to enlarge.

The small hillside city of just over 4,000 residents, overlooking San Francisco Bay, has three schools with 550 students and 30 teachers.  The district sent out eight layoff notices this week.  Previous cuts left one principal for the two elementary schools, and one superintendent for Brisbane and neighboring Bayshore Elementary School District.

“I spend the last few months of each school year in a deep depression because teaching isn’t just a job for me, it’s who I am,” Dalmacio told reporters and a handful of teachers and parents at a news conference organized by the California Teachers Association (CTA).

As of Thursday afternoon, the CTA had heard from more than 200 local unions – including the largest districts in the state – and reported that about 20,000 California teachers were facing the same uncertain future as Dalmacio.

The ten districts issuing the most layoff notices, according to the CTA, are:

  • Los Angeles Unified – about 9,500
  • San Diego Unified – more than 1,600
  • San Juan Unified – 458
  • Capistrano Unified – 392
  • Sacramento City Unified – 389
  • Moreno Valley Unified – 332
  • Long Beach Unified – 309
  • San Bernardino City – 251
  • San Francisco Unified – 210
  • Sweetwater High School District – 209

Not counted in these numbers are first- and second-year teachers who, because they’re not tenured, can be laid off without notice. That number could reach into the thousands, but it’s hard to know, because the state doesn’t keep track of it.

Skipping Seniority

This year, however, the trend is shifting and pink slips are reaching teachers way up the seniority ladder.  One Brisbane teacher who received a pink slip has been there for eight years. San Juan Unified in Sacramento sent notices to some teachers with eleven years in the district.

“Teachers with less than three years were gone the first year (of recent layoffs),” explained Ron Bennett, president and CEO of the consulting firm School Services of California. “As districts have had to ratchet down, they’ve had to go up in seniority.”

Seniority is also being sidestepped in some cases, as more districts turn to provisions of the State Education Code to prevent high turnover rates at academically fragile schools. It started on a large scale in Los Angeles Unified School District two years ago. A lawsuit, filed on behalf of students at three low-performing schools serving mostly students of color, argued that they were being denied an equal education as a result of instability caused by massive layoffs.

In big urban districts, “almost every junior teacher will be assigned to a low-performing inner city school, and as they gain seniority they move out to suburban schools,” said School Services’ Bennett. “In some low-performing schools every single teacher was getting a layoff notice and in higher-performing schools there were no layoffs.”

Since the settlement in Los Angeles Unified, several other large urban districts have used the exemptions in the Ed Code to protect some schools from disproportionate layoffs, including Long Beach, San Francisco – where the union is fighting the move – and Sacramento City Unified.  Last year, an administrative law judge allowed the district to protect jobs at nine schools under the Ed Code exemption for teachers who have undergone special training to improve academic achievement and use different teaching methodologies.

CTA Vice President Eric Heins releasing layoff numbers at news conference in Brisbane. (Photo by Mike Myslinski) Click to enlarge.
CTA Vice President Eric Heins releasing layoff numbers at news conference in Brisbane. (Photo by Mike Myslinski) Click to enlarge.

CTA Vice President Eric Heins finds the argument unconvincing and suspects it’s a political move by districts to ease out veteran teachers who are active in the union and keep younger teachers who are less involved.  “If we have schools that are so bad that nobody wants to teach there, then it’s not right to put a new teacher there or any students,”  said Heins.

This year is different

For the most part, districts have been able to rescind many of the preliminary layoff notices as the state budget picture became more clear.  Last year, the Governor’s May budget revise suggested (erroneously as it turned out) that revenues would be high enough to prevent further cuts.  But districts still had money left from the Obama Administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) which kept thousands of teachers in the classroom.

This time there’s no federal safety net, and school funding is riding on passage of a tax initiative in November. “This year may be a little bit different just because of the sheer size of the cuts combined with structural issues inside school districts,” said Arun Ramanathan, Executive Director of The Education Trust—West.  Then he chided the governor and legislators for abdicating their responsibility by focusing solely on the November election.

“The disconnect between the pain at the local level and what they’re doing in Sacramento is fundamental, and is basically what has been happening for the last four years,” said Ramanathan, “Nobody loses their job up there.”

Sacramento City Superintendent Jonathan Raymond was even more blunt in his criticism.  “We have to be honest that education is not a priority in California; if it was how come we let things get like this?” he wondered, citing cuts in everything from smaller class sizes and libraries, to music, art and athletics.

When Raymond first took the job as superintendent in 2009, he said a friend thought he was crazy.  “He said it’s like hitting the beaches of Normandy wearing an orange jumpsuit,” recalled Raymond.  It may have seemed hyperbolic at the time, but not so much today after the state has dropped to 47th in per pupil spending on education; nearly $3,000 below the national average.  “This is our Normandy today.  If we don’t educate our children what kind of society are we going to have?” he asked with exasperation rising in his voice. “For the life of me I don’t understand why these people in Sacramento don’t fix it.”

Thumbs down for finance reform

The Education Coalition, the powerful alliance of groups representing school employees, districts, and parents, has panned Gov. Jerry Brown’s sweeping proposal for school finance reform and implied that he should abandon the push for it this year. Their disapproval makes it unlikely Brown will succeed if he persists.

“This is the worst possible time to ask school districts to consider changes to the school funding formula,” the Coalition said in a one-page statement issued last week.

The Education Coalition opposes Gov. Brown's weighted student formula for finanace reform. Click to enlarge.
The Education Coalition opposes Gov. Brown's weighted student formula for finance reform. Click to enlarge.

Brown wants to consolidate billions of dollars of special programs, known as categorical funds, then redistribute the money based on the numbers of English learners and low-income children in a school district. Districts with high concentrations of disadvantaged children would gain thousands of dollars per student as the program is phased in over the next six years. But revenues of districts without a lot of poor kids would remain static, locked into a low base of spending after four years of substantial Proposition 98 cuts. Average per-pupil spending is 10 percent below 2007-08 levels in actual dollars and 20 percent below what is statutorily promised.

“While the proposal is designed to achieve a number of laudable goals, it would essentially make permanent the $20 billion in cuts that schools have endured over the past four years,” the statement said. “Without additional revenues and a hold harmless provision, the consolidation proposal would result in some districts receiving additional funds at the expense of others, essentially ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul.’”

Any redistribution formula will create relative winners and losers; the Coalition’s message to the governor is: After the fiscal equivalent of Hurricane Katrina, everyone, not just the poor neighborhoods, needs money to rebuild. The unstated political message: Passing a tax increase should be your priority; don’t give middle-class voters in “loser” districts reason to vote no.

The nine groups approving the statement are the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA); California Association of School Business Officials (CASBO); California County Superintendents Educational Services Association (CCSESA); California Federation of Teachers (CFT); California School Boards Association (CSBA); California School Employees Association (CSEA), representing non-certified school employees; California State PTA; California Teachers Association (CTA); and Service Employees International Union (SEIU), representing other non-certified school workers.

The statement, a consensus document, does not criticize the details of Brown’s weighted student formula. Others have questioned the specific weights – or extra percentage of funds – for low-income children and English learners, the failure to give extra money to high school districts, and the rationale for substantial bonus funding for districts with high concentrations of disadvantaged students. Instead, the statement calls for a more detailed analysis on the impacts on individual districts, with or without the passage of Brown’s proposed tax increase. And it wants Brown’s proposal to be vetted fully as a policy change, with a public hearing (Brown had presented his plan as part of his 2012-13 budget).

Representatives of the groups declined to comment beyond the statement; they said they planned to request a meeting with Brown to discuss their objections. Even without formal opposition, Brown would be hard-pressed to gain passage of such a major proposal in just a few months.