Gov. Brown's school funding plan runs into lawmakers' concerns

05/19/2013 12:00 AM

10/22/2014 1:49 PM

Gov. Jerry Brown had hardly finished presenting his annual budget revision last week before state Sen. Ted Lieu lit up on Twitter with a burst of criticism of a major part of the plan, a bid to shift more state aid to poor and English-learning students.

"Instead of working together to help all kids," said Lieu, D-Torrance, Brown's funding formula "pits teacher against teacher, community against community, parent against parent."

Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, convened a hearing on the matter in the Assembly Education Committee the next day, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, reiterated his own reservations about the proposal. He said lawmakers will model the effect of Brown's education proposal "region by region, district by district."

In many ways, resistance to Brown's proposal to overhaul California's school financing system is a function of simple math.

Though a majority of California's more than 6 million schoolchildren live in urban and rural districts expected to benefit from Brown's proposal, all but a handful of lawmakers who will vote on the measure represent at least one school district identified by the Department of Education as a potential loser.

"If a district defines itself as a winner or loser, right or wrong, that's what these lawmakers are going to care about," said Kevin Gordon, a longtime education lobbyist. "It's what drives a lot of the skepticism."

Brown was on the defensive last week, laboring to "clarify some common misperceptions" about his plan. He said the most controversial part of his proposal – to provide money to especially needy districts at the expense of wealthier ones – would amount to just 4 percent of total spending, with the rest distributed on a per-pupil basis partly to all students and partly to disadvantaged students statewide.

Brown dismissed a California Department of Education projection that more than half of state school districts could receive less money under this formula than they might under existing law. In his annual budget revision Tuesday, he called it a "very small part" of his plan.

That Brown was forced to address the matter at all suggests how difficult district-level considerations may be for the Democratic governor to overcome.

Asked if he thought he had done enough to mollify resistant lawmakers, Brown said, "I think the idea in a Democratic Legislature of helping the less advantaged is very persuasive."

Brown has endeavored to minimize district-by-district comparisons.

While criticizing the Department of Education analysis for its reliance on uncertain funding assumptions, the administration has refused to endorse a comparison of its own. Because of the complexities of school finance and the uncertainty of future political decisions, officials said it is impossible to accurately project how school funding would be allocated if Brown's proposal is not adopted.

Brown said no school district would receive less money under his plan than it does now, only that some districts with greater funding needs will do "considerably better" than others.

Legislators not reassured

For many lawmakers, that assurance is insufficient. The Department of Education analysis, said Buchanan, is "a big deal."

Buchanan, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, is one of two Assembly members, along with Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, who represent areas in which every school district would receive less than they otherwise might.

"It's a struggle for me, because I completely understand what the governor's trying to do," Buchanan said. "You can talk to people in my district who say, 'I can understand not getting as much, but we want our kids to have textbooks.' "

Like Steinberg, Buchanan has called for a greater proportion of the $1.9 billion Brown proposes to spend next year on restructuring the education system to be distributed statewide.

Brown did not offer such a concession in his budget revision, but he did move to please education interests in other ways. He proposed accelerating the repayment to local school districts of state aid deferred in previous years, and he offered $1 billion in one-time funding to help implement English, math and other education standards.

Brown offered to increase first-year spending overall on his education plan by $240 million, and he included about $218 million in continued funding for popular regional occupational centers and home-to-school transportation programs.

He left intact his proposal to eliminate most of California's categorical funds – money that can be used only for certain purposes – in an effort to give local districts greater flexibility in how they spend state money.

Following the release of a counterproposal last month, Senate Democrats released a list of school districts they said would not qualify for additional funding under Brown's plan, despite containing individual schools with high poverty.

Among districts on the list was Folsom Cordova Unified School District, which includes wealthy neighborhoods of Folsom and poorer pockets of Rancho Cordova.

"We're the losers," said Rhonda Crawford, the district's chief financial officer. "All of us in education, I think we all agree that something needs to be done and he's on the right track with this, but it's just that we, as one of the districts that is severely impacted by this, we just are asking for just a little extra time to look at the formulas and look at those discrepancies between districts."

Folsom Cordova expects to receive as much as $700 less per student than allowed by existing law under the governor's formula by the time it is fully implemented, or about $12 million annually, Crawford said.

"It's just not good for kids," she said.

Assemblyman Ken Cooley, the Rancho Cordova Democrat who represents the area, said that with Brown's proposal so closely following years of budget cuts to local schools, "I think what Californians expect is to see sort of broad-based improvement in education. A scenario where you have truly winners and losers is not right."

Some areas benefit greatly

Brown's proposal would generally be more advantageous for urban and rural school districts than for wealthier, suburban ones. In some of California's poorest areas, the benefit may be great.

The massive Bakersfield City School District, where about 84 percent of students are low-income, could receive more than $1,000 more per student under Brown's funding formula than under existing law, according to the Department of Education analysis. Wasco Union Elementary School District, where nearly 90 percent of students are low-income, could receive more than $1,800 per student more.

"That 4 percent for these districts like Wasco is huge," said Michael Hulsizer, chief deputy for government affairs at the Kern County Office of Education.

Michael W. Kirst, president of the state Board of Education and a Stanford University professor emeritus who co-wrote a 2008 paper that became the model for Brown's proposal, said district-level comparisons have contributed to a "political battle" and distracted focus from broader policy concerns.

"You can manipulate assumptions to show anything, but the proposal that's out there by the governor is out there, and not the alternative assumptions about the future that make it look bad," he said.

Kirst said opposition may be overstated. Budget negotiations between the governor and lawmakers are only now beginning, and Kirst said changes Brown made in the budget revision may help some districts enough to satisfy the lawmakers representing them.

Still, Kirst said, "You can't make everybody 100 percent happy. There are tradeoffs in any school finance plan unless you have just all the money in the world."

Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders. Jim Sanders and Melody Gutierrez of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

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