Dan Walters: Big school money row surfaces again in California

08/21/2013 12:00 AM

08/21/2013 12:37 PM

When Gov. Jerry Brown's landmark overhaul of school finance – aimed at shifting more money into educating poor and English-learner students – was making its way through the Legislature this year, a big issue was whether the extra funds should go to school districts or the schools with large concentrations of the targeted kids.

Advocates for the extra spending feared that if it went to the districts, it could be siphoned off into higher teacher salaries or other broad forms of spending rather than devoted to the students who needed extra academic attention to catch up with their more affluent classmates.

Ultimately, in a win for the education establishment, the billions of extra dollars were allocated to districts, but the State Board of Education was given rule-making authority to ensure that the funds would be properly concentrated and their results monitored transparently.

That had the effect of shifting the high-stakes battle for control of the money to the board, which is appointed by the governor, but advocates for the poor kids, including the American Civil Liberties Union and some Latino rights groups, concluded that the legislation itself contained too many potential loopholes.

Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, is carrying a new measure, Senate Bill 344, to tighten up the school finance law's implementation, more precisely defining which students would be served and requiring more parental participation in spending the extra money. And its appearance this month has touched off a renewal of the political catfight that seemingly was resolved just a couple of months ago.

The bill is pending in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. This week, a powerful coalition of school organizations, including the California School Boards Association and the California Teachers Association, sent a toughly worded letter to the committee's chairman, Los Angeles Democrat Mike Gatto, seeking the measure's rejection.

The coalition complained that SB 344 would undercut the rule-making process now underway in the Board of Education and "diminishes district flexibility to target funds to critically needed programs." Thus, with the legislative session drawing to a close, school finance has re-emerged as a pithy issue with delicate political ramifications, such as driving a wedge between Democratic members of the Legislature's Latino caucus from the teachers union that is a major source of campaign funds for Democratic politicians.

The latter include Padilla himself, who wants to run for secretary of state next year and would need union support.

Intense negotiations are underway among the disparate groups, but whether they bear fruit is uncertain. And if nothing happens, the battle will shift to the Board of Education again.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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