George Skelton: Brown's 'burb plan absurd

Idea would take money from suburban districts to spend on schools in urban areas

By GEORGE SKELTONJanuary 15, 2013 

SACRAMENTO -- Robbing Peter in the suburbs to pay Paul in the inner city seems politically perilous. Even unjust. Particularly after we just soaked the rich to balance the state budget and keep public schools afloat.

How much income redistribution will Californians stand for? In Gov. Jerry Brown's new scheme, it isn't only the rich getting robbed. It's the middle class, too.

Brown's budget proposal would distribute future school funding much differently than it distributed today. Spending on poor children, English learners and foster kids would grow a lot faster. Funds for middle-class-and-up kids would grow more slowly.

Like all education funding formulas, Brown's proposal is complex, if not convoluted.

School districts where half the students are economically disadvantaged or are English learners or are in foster homes would get a big funding boost. The money would come from the total education pot, leaving less for the other districts. "Economically disadvantaged" would be defined as being eligible for subsidized lunches.

Among California's 6.2 million kingergarten through 12th-grade students, roughly 3.3 million get subsidized lunches. There are 1.4 million English learners. But it's not clear how many would benefit from extra funding because not all are concentrated in eligible districts.

Brown explained his thinking last week: "Our future depends not on across-the-board funding, but in disproportionately funding those schools that have disproportionate challenges. ... Aristotle said treating unequals equally is not justice. ... Growing up in Compton or Richmond is not like it is to grow up in Los Gatos or Beverly Hills or Piedmont. ...

"If you look at a classroom in Piedmont and you look at one in Compton, it's a lot different. The Piedmont families have far more money, far more access to the better things in life. And the extent to which we can offset that by putting more funding into those school districts like Compton, we're going to do that."

The Democrat continued: "Maybe some suburbanites might not see it. But I think the ones who can see over the horizon and realize that an aging group of people have a vested interest in making sure that the generation coming along who's going to pay their Social Security and maybe operating their nursing home when they're sitting there drooling, they may want to make sure that they're making enough money that the social harmony is maximized. ... That's the whole essence of the progressive agenda, to try to compensate for the global inequalities that are growing."

Brown knows his proposal "is controversial" but insisted "it is fair, it's right and it's just."

You might have thought that Brown II was a centrist. Not all the time. Here the former Jesuit seminarian is paddling his canoe left.

But the governor who talks about maximizing social harmony should worry about dividing the state further between the classes. Californians need to be pulling together to get out of the great recession.

Government shouldn't be alienating the core middle class to benefit anyone.

Moreover, the Democratic Party has been expanding into suburbs once represented by Republicans. Democratic lawmakers might think twice about jeopardizing their recently won seats by raiding the local school treasuries to help big-city districts, such as L.A. Unified.

Voters bought Brown's proposal in November to increase income taxes on the wealthy to avoid a

$5.4 billion drain on kindergarten- through-12 schools. Shortchanging some of those schools to help others wasn't part of the deal.

The Brown camp says all districts would continue to get more funding as the economy grows. Yes, but some would receive much more, and others less than under the current division of the pie.

And as any parent with a schoolchild knows, all public schools in California were whacked hard by Sacramento's cuts. They're just starting to recover. None has any money to share.

"If you're not growing the pot, you can't give more to some districts without taking from others," says Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, who heads the Assembly Education Committee and is a former school board member. She's skeptical of the governor's plan.

Brown proposed a similar version last year, but the legislators shot it down

as they pondered his Prop 30 tax proposal.

This year, Brown has affixed a more marketable tag, calling it the "Local Control Funding Formula." It's called "local control" because the state would eliminate requirements for so-called categorical programs, such as busing, career tech and textbooks. Schools would have more flexibility.

Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, said schools in her district were "horrified" at last year's proposal. As for the new version, the former teacher says: "If we're talking about taking money away from schools, it'll be a huge problem."

Brown's right. Paul needs more money. But he's wrong to mug Peter.

Email: george.skelton@latimes.com.

LOS ANGELES TIMES

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