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.