160-day minimum year coming

Call it a last-minute clarification or a June surprise, another piece of bad news: A trailer bill that the Legislature will vote on Wednesday permits districts to slash the school year by an additional three weeks for the next two years, if voters reject Gov. Brown’s tax increase in November. That’s twice what  Gov. Jerry Brown seemed to suggest in the May budget revise when he proposed the elimination of 15 days divided over a two-year period. Instead, the Legislature is prepared to authorize a 160-day year, likely the lowest in the nation and far behind other advanced nations; nearly all states have a 180-day year, which California also required before 2010.

In one sense, nothing has changed. Brown hasn’t suggested less funding for schools than the $53.6 billion for 2012-13 that the Legislature approved in passing the budget last week. Districts will have to negotiate a shorter year with their unions; they can’t declare it unilaterally, and most districts won’t go that low.

But the language in AB 1476 (section 50, midway through a very long bill) is a stark message that a defeat of the tax increase will create more than a one-year revenue crisis for schools.

Brown basically spared K-12 schools cuts in this year’s state budget but is promising to slash school funding by $5.5 billion if voters reject the income tax/sales tax increase. That translates to $441 per student, about an 8.4 percent cut in funding. Eliminating 15 days out of a minimum 175 days would be an 8.6 percent cut in the calendar. So cutting 7.5 days each of the next two years would solve only half of the gap, leaving districts to make other cuts through layoffs, benefits, or non-pay areas.

Lowering the minimum year to 160 days now would be too late for those districts and unions that already have negotiated potential cuts. Sacramento City Unified teachers earlier this month approved a two-day furlough, plus an additional 10 days, lowering the school year to 168 days, if the tax initiative fails.

A Senate staff member said that the intent of the trailer bill language is to give districts more flexibility to cope with terrible choices. Most districts won’t go to a 160-day year, but it will be an option. Because districts must submit balanced budgets for two years beyond the current year, districts can negotiate with certainty for continued furloughs through 2013-14. The governor approved the trailer bill language, which clears up any ambiguous reading of his earlier proposals, the staff member said.

But Robert Miyashiro, vice president of the education consulting firm School Services of California, said that the Legislature shaped the budget the way it is, so it is disingenuous to say, It is out of our hands. Legislators strategically set it up to say the schools must take a big cut if the initiative flops.

A spokesman for the California Teachers Association said that the union had not read the trailer bill language and could not comment. The trailer bill also contains language permitting  teachers and other school employees to accrue a full year of  vesting for pensions if a district’s school year drops to as few as 160 days.

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?”

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.

Persuade, not threaten, me to vote for your initiative, Governor

A few Saturdays ago, my kids and I walked through a crowd of signature gatherers for ballot initiatives outside Trader Joe’s. Some of them all but tackled me as they pitched their proposals. All of them promised more money for education and a better future for my children. Unfortunately for the signature gatherers’ bottom line, I didn’t have time to stop. My children and their school had more immediate needs. We were on our way to a Dance-A-Thon, one of many “-thons” that California parents have organized to raise money for their schools.

It’s hard not to smile when you see a hundred kids dancing the Electric Slide. They’re so happy and innocent, they make you happy, too. But after an afternoon of dancing, they started getting tired and I started wondering, “Why are our children dancing non-stop for four hours to raise a couple of hundred bucks to offset the impact of the state budget deficit? How did we get into this mess and how are we going to get out of it?”

I probably wasn’t the only parent having those thoughts. I’m sure I wasn’t the only parent who’d been hit up that morning to support an education ballot initiative. The promise of the ballot initiatives is pretty tempting for public school parents who have seen the impact of budget cuts, dipped into their pockets to pay for after-school programs, and devoted an increasing amount of family time to fundraising. After a while, you’ll sign on to anything or support anyone who promises to stop the pain. That’s what Governor Brown is counting on when his tax initiative is up for a vote in November.

Still, like many Californians, the closer it gets to November, the more I’ll be thinking about that vote and what it means – just as I thought long and hard before voting in 2010 for Jerry Brown.

More than anything, I want to know whether the funding will benefit my children’s high-poverty school. I want to know that the money will be targeted to restore all the supports and services that have been eliminated over the last five years. I’d like to hear whether the governor has a positive vision for improving California’s education system and closing achievement and opportunity gaps. I want to know if he truly cares about making sure all kids have great schools and effective teachers. I want to hear whether he understands the hopes and dreams of the parents and youth living in a majority-minority state and an increasingly globalized world.

In all of these areas, I’m not getting many answers from our governor. When he ran in 2010, I read his education plan and believed his promises to use his long experience to bridge the partisan divide, fix California’s budget deficit, and end the use of budget gimmicks. Now, after seeing him fail to cross the partisan divide or fix the budget crisis, and watching him propose a set of budgets that include some of the worst gimmicks in state history, I’m not as trusting.

This lack of trust seems warranted even when the governor appears to be doing the right thing. For example, his weighted student formula (WSF) proposal would send education funding to school districts based on student need and fix longstanding inequities between rich and poor districts. This could be beneficial for high-need schools. Yet, the governor and his advisers have failed to include basic principles of financial transparency, accountability, and school-level authority on how the dollars are spent. In practice, this means that state dollars will flow to school districts with few assurances on how they will be spent at the school level or fix funding inequities between rich and poor schools. The governor won’t even fully implement the WSF model unless his ballot initiative passes and the state has paid off other funding owed to school districts.

And that brings me back to the signature gatherers. Supporters of the governor’s initiative portray it as a way to increase education funding. But when I try to figure out how this initiative is going to benefit my children’s school, I can’t tell. The only thing I have to go by is the governor’s budget, which projects over $5 billion in cuts to schools if I don’t vote for his initiative.

Now, the billions in cuts to schools terrify me, but a couple of things disturb me about this approach. First, the governor has failed to provide any positive reason or offer any educational vision that would move me, as a parent, to want to vote for his initiative. Instead, he is essentially telling me and every other parent in California, “I will cut your child’s school funding if you don’t vote for my initiative.” Now, I’ve heard that the governor is delivering similar strong messages of pain to any major interest group that doesn’t back his initiative or shows interest in an alternative initiative being promoted by the philanthropist and civil rights activist Molly Munger. And maybe this will work for him. But telling me that you’re going to punish my children, their classmates, and our school if I don’t support your initiative doesn’t really work for me.

In contrast, Munger provides a real vision for educational improvement. Her proposal sends the money directly to schools with additional dollars to high-need students. It requires financial transparency and stakeholder involvement in decision-making at the school level. It asks for shared sacrifice from all taxpayers. And it can tell me exactly how much additional money our Oakland school will receive in the coming years. These are the very elements that Brown’s weighted student formula proposal and ballot initiative don’t include. For parents focused on their kids and schools and advocates focused on equity, it is an attractive approach. Now that it is going to be on the ballot in November, perhaps our governor should spend less time fighting it, and more time learning from it. That would be in his best interest and certainly in the best interests of the state he was elected to govern.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust-West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional, and VISTA volunteer in California, New England, and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

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.

K-12 schools spared, for now

The state budget for next year has deteriorated by $6 billion since January, but Gov. Jerry Brown is not proposing to cut money for K-12 schools – immediately. But if voters in November reject Brown’s proposed $8.5 billion tax increase, schools will be a $5.5 billion piece of what the governor has called “a day of reckoning.”

In his revised budget, Brown is proposing massive reductions in the budgets for courts, as well as state worker furloughs and punishing Medi-Cal cuts to hospitals and nursing homes. Because state revenues have fallen, Brown also could have cut Proposition 98 funding for this year by nearly $800 million. But that would have been impractical this far into the year, so instead he is proposing to redesignate the overappropriation as a prepayment toward settling up a debt to schools under an agreement that Gov. Schwarzenegger made with the California Teachers Assn.

One of the quirks of Proposition 98’s funding formula is that the spending commitment to schools can rise even as overall revenues fall. And that is what will happen in the 2012-13 budget. Having fallen substantially in 2011-12, the increase in revenues projected for next year creates a $1.2 billion extra for K-12. But districts shouldn’t count on any of that money coming their way. Brown wants to use $393 million to add to a $2.2 billion fund to pay down the current $9.6 billion in deferrals – late payments to school districts that are part of Brown’s wall of debt. And he wants to count a $450 million payment to low-performing schools under the Quality Education Investment Act as part of Proposition 98 (it had been paid outside of Prop 98 in other years). Add in a few more adjustments, and, poof!, the money is gone.

State revenues are projected to rise $17 billion by 2015-16. Source: state Department of Finance. Click to enlarge.
State revenues are projected to rise $17 billion by 2015-16. Source: state Department of Finance. Click to enlarge.

Total Prop 98 spending for K-12 and community colleges would rise from $47 billion in 2011-12 to $53.7 billion in 2012-13. About half ($2.9 billion) would come from passage of the tax initiative (see graph).

Brown is proposing to raise the sales tax by a quarter of a percentage and the income tax for those earning above $500,000. If it fails, Brown wants $5.5 billion in K-12 cuts, an extra $656 million more than $4.8 billion proposed in January. This is a higher figure because Brown increased the proposed tax by about $2 billion after coming together with the California Federation of Teachers.

A $2.8 billion repayment of a deferral would be canceled, continuing cash flow problems for many districts, and districts would face $2.7 billion in new cuts. That’s the equivalent of three weeks of school; the Legislature may be asked to reduce the school year from 175 days (already 5 days less than before) to 160 days.

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.

Schools under heavy stress

A new report out today examines internal and external stresses from budget cuts and economic contractions on the states’ 30 largest school districts. When handled singly, districts have been able to cope with larger classes and even a shorter school year. But combinations of shocks to the system are stretching schools’ ability to serve children who are also facing financial strains at home.

“Too often school budget cuts are viewed in isolation from one another, rather than looking at their cumulative effects,” says Louis Freedberg, executive director of EdSource, which published Schools Under Stress: Pressures Mount on California’s Largest Districts. “What is clear is that California schools are having to cope with multiple stresses and their impact is magnified by the experience of students from economically distressed households, which in turn can affect their academic performance.”

The 30 districts comprise 2 million students, about a third of the state, and range from Los Angeles Unified (667,000) and San Diego (132,000) to Twin Rivers and Chino Valley (32,000 each).

In surveying districts over nine months ending in March, EdSource found:

The proportion of children in poverty has risen sharply in most of the 30 largest districts. Source: EdSource. (Click to enlarge.)
The proportion of children in poverty has risen sharply in most of the 30 largest districts. Source: EdSource. (Click to enlarge.)

Childhood poverty: Rates of childhood poverty increased since 2007 in 26 of the 30 largest districts. Poverty rates, as defined by federal guidelines, approached 50 percent in districts hardest hit by the recession: Fresno (49 percent) and Stockton (46 percent). In San Bernardino City Unified, the childhood poverty rate rose 60 percent, to 43 percent from 2007-2008. Rising poverty, accompanied by increases in students qualifying for subsidized meals at school, can signal malnutrition and turbulence at home, affecting children’s ability to concentrate. Just when they need more services and adults to help children cope, school districts have fewer resources.

“Teachers will tell you that the needs that our students manifest when they don’t know if food is coming or know if they have a place to live in tomorrow are emotionally destabilizing. It is incredibly difficult for teachers dealing with that day in and day out,” says Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson.

Fewer summer programs: Most districts have cut back their summer programs drastically since the recession, compounding problems for students struggling to advance to the next grade or considering dropping out. Enrichment summer programs have all but disappeared. This year, Los Angeles Unified will restrict summer offerings to a handful of high schools. The exceptions among districts are Oakland, Fresno, and Santa Ana, which have cut elsewhere or creatively used other sources of money to expand summer programs.

Fewer instructional days: Twelve of the 30 districts have fewer than 180 instructional days, the norm until a few years ago. While three districts – Fontana, Long Beach, and San Jose – restored the week they had lost, three more – San Bernardino City, Moreno Valley, and Chino Valley – joined another half-dozen districts at 175 days. The report cited a Maryland study that found the passage rate in reading and math on a state test fell a half-percent for every unscheduled day off.

Class sizes have risen in all but a few of the largest districts. Source: EdSource. (Click to enlarge.)
Class sizes have risen in all but a few of the largest districts. Source: EdSource. (Click to enlarge.)

Larger classes: Of the 30 districts, only Stockton has an average class size of 20 or fewer, and only in kindergarten. Half of the districts now report more than 30 students per class in one or more elementary grades, while two (San Francisco and Los Angeles) have kept K-3 below 23. The Legislature began to relax the state’s class-size reduction rules three years ago; Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing to remove all limits (subject to local bargaining) next year. Studies looking at the relation of class size to academic performance have been mixed, but any teacher will say that classes of 30 (or more in high school) limit individual attention and increase incidents of disruption.

Fewer counselors: Students struggling with issues at home, whether joblessness, homelessness, or hunger, will bring their problems to school, which in the past has provided shelter from the storm. California already had the nation’s highest rate of counselors to students (1,810 to 1, 50 percent higher than the national average as of two years ago). There are on average 20 percent fewer counselors in 22 of 30 districts than pre-recession. High school students needing college advice are often on their own.

Teacher layoffs: Only a fraction of teachers who receive layoff notices in March lose their jobs by summer, but it has been a significant fraction. Of 96,000 teachers in the 30 districts in 2010-11, nearly 11,000 received notices; of those, 20 percent or 2,213 were laid off last year. This year, with uncertainty over the November tax initiative looming, Los Angeles alone issued 9,507 layoff notices in March and San Diego 1,655. What cannot be quantified is the impact on teacher and school morale of massive notices. But the uncertainty is distracting and dispiriting, with teachers focusing much of their attention on job searches.

‘Getting Down to Facts’ revisited

The principal author and other contributors to the massive research project on California education known as Getting Down to Facts are marking the fifth anniversary of its release by examining its impact and discussing what still needs to be done.

Clearly, a lot.

“Our initial optimism was clearly unwarranted,” wrote Susanna Loeb, Stanford University professor of education and coordinator of the 23 studies, in the preface to a policy update published last week by Policy Analysis for California Education, or PACE. The researchers and foundations that funded the projects hoped that reams of information would lead to policies “to streamline governance and to simplify and rationalize school finance,” produce smarter use of data, and more effectively develop teachers and administrators.

None of that has happened to any degree; any momentum for acting on recommendations was sidetracked by an economic downturn that walloped school budgets and by the indifference of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who raised expectations by creating the Committee on Education Excellence and hyping the Year of Education, and then ignoring it all.

But in a conference that PACE held on Thursday in Sacramento, Loeb also offered a dose of optimism. “Even though we haven’t come very far, we may be at a particularly promising moment,” she said, with Gov. Jerry Brown proposing significant finance reform and a “positive indication in recent polls that suggest public support for meaningful reform.” An online poll by PACE and the USC Rossier School of Education found that two-thirds of Californians agreed that the state should provide more money to poorer school districts even if it resulted in decreased spending in wealthier districts. A majority (55 percent) still favored higher spending in low-income schools even if it meant less spending in their neighborhood schools.

For those favoring significant changes to the system, that’s heartening. Getting Down to Facts and the Governor’s Excellence Committee were explicit in saying that K-12 under-resourced schools needed reforms and more money. In early 2008, before the recession, the state was projecting Proposition 98 increases of $5 billion over several years. Instead, since then, K-12 spending has been cut more than that.

Wtih budget cuts, state approrpriations this year are about what they were in 2004. Source: Getting Down To Facts: Five Years Later (Click to enlarge.)
With budget cuts, state K-12 appropriations this year are about what they were in 2003-04. Source: Getting Down To Facts: Five Years Later (Click to enlarge.)

So groups in the Education Coalition are resisting finance reform, which would reallocate money to disadvantaged students, and are wary – as is Brown – of new programs, mandates, and expenditures. As Rick Simpson, deputy chief of staff and education adviser for Assembly Speaker John Perez, commented at the PACE conference with a note of aggravation, “Back in 2007, we were looking at a huge windfall. Now schools have been cut billions and billions of dollars, and the conversation is, ‘You’re not going to get that money back until you do all these reforms.’”

But the researchers of Getting Down to Facts continue to argue that the state cannot sit still and wait until money owed to schools is fully restored. As Heather Rose, an associate professor of education at UC Davis, wrote in the Getting Down to Facts update regarding finance reform, “Without a stronger finance system, reaching California’s academic goals will be an uphill battle. Pouring more money into the current system is akin to pouring a concrete foundation without putting the form boards in place. It consumes substantial resources, makes a mess, and doesn’t improve the stability of your house.”

Rose and others contributed sections in the 36-page update on governance, finance, personnel, and data. Here’s a summary of their findings:

Governance

Getting Down to Facts concluded that legislative dictates, a phone-book-thick education code, and conflicting lines of authority in Sacramento inhibited sound policy-making and frustrated local districts. “California has one of the most hierarchical rule-bound school institutions in the country,” Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley, told conferees.

Not much has changed, concluded Richard Welsh and Dominic Brewer of the University of Southern California. All-consuming concern over passing a state budget has “hijacked any real conversation about policy reform,” quoting an expert they interviewed. Manipulations of Proposition 98’s funding formula by the governor and Legislature have made it difficult for districts to predict revenues.

Brown did eliminate the Office of the Secretary of Education (actually moving it onto the shoulders of Sue Burr, executive director of the State Board of Education), but there remains overlapping and competing policy authority among the State Board, the Legislature, and an elected Superintendent of Public Instruction. There’s no talk of changing that.

The Legislature has backed into one of the reforms advocated in Getting Down to Facts: more local control over spending, though without giving locals more power to raise money. Districts have been given power to spend money on 40 categorical programs, worth $4 billion, as they wish. Most have used the money to backfill their basic budgets, raising questions about whether money previously earmarked for poor kids will end up being spent on them and whether worthwhile priorities – for teacher training, adult education, career and technical education – will be dismantled as a result of austerity.

Meanwhile, some districts have innovated on their own. Los Angeles Unified is experimenting with decentralized pilot schools; Twin Rivers Unified has turned over budgeting decisions to school sites, and the seven districts that came together for the state’s Race to the Top application have pursued a collaboration through the California Office to Reform Education.

Finance

Getting Down to Facts concluded that education funding is “overly complex, irrational, and fails to link resource allocations with student need or district costs.” Brown’s plan for weighted student funding addresses some of the criteria for a sound finance system: Funneling more money to disadvantaged students and eliminating most categorical funding would make education funding simpler, more transparent, and more equitable. But California would still lag behind most states in per-student spending, even if Brown’s proposed tax increase passes. And the administration, through the State Board, is just beginning to think about new ways of holding districts accountable for student achievement, beyond the current limited array of standardized tests, that would be needed once districts have flexibility to spend money as they choose.

Simpson expressed skepticism that Brown’s funding proposal could be made ready for passage by the end of June.

Teachers and Leaders

“At the state level, there have been no significant changes in teacher or leadership policies. If anything, things have gotten worse,” wrote Jennifer Imazeki, professor of economics at San Diego State. Districts have cut money for professional development, and layoffs have left staffs demoralized.

Getting Down to Facts found significant problems, among them:

  • Administrators with relatively poor training compared with other states;
  • Difficulties identifying and dismissing weak teachers;
  • Systemic flaws in teacher compensation and distribution, with little correlation between student achievement and a pay system that rewards teachers based on education and years of experience;
  • Reforms pertaining to the evaluation, inequitable assignment and retention of teachers that are inhibited by state policies.

Imazeki noted “pockets of progress,” with Los Angeles Unified, which is piloting new teacher evaluations based on multiple measures and San Francisco Unified, which passed a parcel tax to  fund more professional development, better evaluations, opportunities for master teachers and incentives for teaching in hard-to-staff schools. A reconstituted state Commission on Teacher Credentialing, to which Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond was appointed, is focusing more attention on teacher training programs.

There’s been some action in the Legislature. However, provisions under the current version of AB 5, the primary bill proposing changes to teacher evaluations, would take effect only once cost-of-living adjustments owed to schools are paid back – a process that will take years.

Another approach that Imazeki proposes is for the Legislature to do no harm and get out of the way. “At a minimum, state policy should focus on removing regulatory barriers to these local efforts and encourage further experimentation,” she wrote, noting that these policy changes would not require additional money.

Data

Both Getting Down to Facts and the Governor’s Committee said that the development of a statewide comprehensive data system was indispensable to guide long-term educational improvement. The state currently has no idea which programs work and why; it’s difficult for the public to hold the decision makers accountable for spending without this knowledge.

After fits, starts, and mishaps, the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS) is running smoothly, collecting useful data on the performance of schools and students, along with accurate dropout information and graduation rates. But there is no agreement on where to go from there. Data advocates want to link CALPADS to higher education institutions down to preschools. And they want a teacher database, CALTIDES, which would link to CALPADS and include information on teacher salaries, certification programs and student results.

But Brown vetoed the acceptance of federal money for CALTIDES, and has questioned whether any more money should be spent on statewide data systems. The focus should be on locally generated and collected data that teachers, parents, principals and districts find useful, not on data for researchers and policy analysts.

David Plank, executive director of PACE, argues in the update that the state should build a state data warehouse that would compile and link data from pre-kindergarten through higher ed institutions and create tools useful to local educators to support continuous improvement. As it is now, the state imposes programs, like class-size reduction, without any way of measuring to see if they work; meanwhile, promising practices from local districts go unrecognized and measured.

“It is unarguable that for now,” Plank wrote, “that the persistent lack of useful educational data continues to handicap all efforts to improve the performance of California schools and students.”

Easing the burden of deferrals

A bill working its way through the state Senate would require the state to share the financial burden it causes the next time it delays money due K-12 districts. Only a portion of the short-term interest charges that many districts face when forced to take out short-term loans would be reimbursed. But SB 1491 at least would recognize that billions of dollars in late payments can create an expensive cash crisis for districts, many of them in low-income areas.

Within the past decade the state has used late payments, called deferrals, to help balance the budget. At this point, $10.4 billion – about 30 percent of state money owed to K-12 and community colleges – is budgeted in one fiscal year, but paid in the next year. Districts that cannot borrow internally, from their own accounts, have turned to county offices of education if available or to the open market, at interest rates from a few percentage points up to double-digit rates for some charter schools.

Gov. Jerry Brown has made eliminating the state’s “wall of debt,” which includes deferrals, a priority for his proposed $9 billion tax increase, starting with repaying $1.8 billion this year. But if voters reject higher taxes, the state will face another year of big deficits, and another deferral to districts and community colleges would be an alternative to another outright cut.

The pain of deferrals has not been spread equally, which has been a major source of contention by those who bear the bigger share. School districts’ basic funding under Proposition 98 consists of  local property taxes and state revenue, with the state filling in whatever amount the property tax can’t meet. Deferrals affect only the state revenue portion, so districts with a low tax base and a high share of state revenue have been disproportionately hit by deferrals. Stephen Rhoads, a consultant who has done work on the issue for the sponsor, Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod, has calculated, for example, that Fresno Unified currently has $2,005 per student in state aid deferred, while Huntington Union High School District in Orange County has only $526 per student deferred.

Because of these disparities, Negrete McLeod proposed spreading the per-student cost of future deferrals equally among all districts, regardless of whether they’re property poor or rich, and having the state reimburse the full borrowing costs that they incur.

Endorsing this concept, Bill Lucia, CEO of the nonprofit EdVoice, said deferrals have forced some districts to lay off teachers and cut programs. The inequitable distribution threatens to violate the Serrano case, in which the state Supreme Court demanded that the state fix inequities in school funding.

Negrete McLeod’s bill initially suggested giving further breaks to districts with high rates of poor children. But staff of the Senate Education Committee found the deferral redistribution formula too complex and possibly unconstitutional, and recommended a simpler method with less cost to the state, which the Committee approved and Negrete McLeod accepted.

Districts will be entitled to reimbursement at the interest rate that the state receives while pooling its revenue while waiting to fund various state budget accounts. That percentage is currently about 1 percent – far less than many districts are paying for short-term notes, but better than nothing.

At a hearing last week on the bill, Lucia and Liz Guillen, an attorney with the nonprofit advocacy law firm Public Advocates, criticized this solution as not going far enough to address deferral inequities.

But Negrete McLeod said she’d take what she could get. “Despite my desire to equalize the inequality of the current deferral funding system, I was willing to limit the scope of the bill,” she said in an email.  “Deferrals are a contentious issue and moving a bill that saves school districts millions of dollars in interest charges is a step in the right direction.”

It’s unclear how much districts will save or how the reimbursements would work. Details will be worked out as the bill goes through the Legislature, said Daniel Alvarez, staff director for the Senate Education Committee.