Californians have reason to worry about the toll that the state's budget problems are taking on our students' education. After enduring years of recession, cuts to educational resources, overcrowded classrooms and fraying infrastructure, our public schools face fiscal disaster if voters reject a tax increase in November.
The 2012-13 budget lays out stark choices when it comes to the amount of funding our schools receive. If voters don't approve the governor's initiative, K-12 education would be pounded with $5.5 billion in cuts, and school districts would have the authority to shorten the school year by a staggering three weeks.
The budget also leaves unresolved a critical discussion about the way California schools are funded. The governor was on the right track when he proposed replacing the current, convoluted and inefficient system of school funding with a simpler and fairer system, known as the "weighted pupil formula."
This year, there wasn't time to fully flesh out his proposal in collaboration with the Legislature, educators and the public a collaboration that will be necessary to ensure that the weighted pupil formula does what it is intended to do. Still, it's important that this policy discussion be kept alive.
The concept of a weighted pupil formula is supported by education advocates, business and researchers because it would inject a dose of logic and transparency into our school funding system.
Switching to a weighted pupil formula would allow schools to respond to student needs, instead of bureaucratic, overlapping reporting requirements.
Under a weighted pupil formula, more funding "weight" is given to students who live in poverty, students who attend schools where most of their peers also struggle against poverty, or students who are learning the English language.
Done right, this long overdue reform of the way public school funding is distributed would eliminate the inequities that have grown in our public school system despite years of well-meaning efforts to equalize or prioritize spending. It would recognize that "equity" does not mean "the same," and would give schools the power to make funding decisions.
Educators closest to the classroom, in partnership with their local community, are best able to determine how to educate all students and reduce the achievement gap that now threatens the futures of English learners and students who live in poverty.
When designing a weighted pupil formula, it's important that the weights given to students challenged by poverty or English learning be large enough to make a difference. The formula should ensure that schools receive stable funding as we transition to this new model and that students quickly receive similar funding based on their needs, instead of where they live.
Money from the additional weights must actually provide additional support above that of a school's basic costs, which should be transparent to the public, and schools should be held accountable for this.
To make the most impact when it's needed most now, when more students than ever face the challenge of poverty a weighted pupil formula should be put into effect sooner, rather than later. To be developed effectively, however, this important reform must include the input of educators, school and district administrators and boards and parents, as well as the governor and Legislature.
The idea of a weighted pupil formula has been around for decades. Moving to this more logical system should remain on the table, not because there's more money to go around but because in tight times, the way money is spent is of greater consequence. The governor, Legislature and education advocates must keep this issue alive, and work publicly and collaboratively with school districts when devising a formula and deciding how it will be implemented.
It's obvious that a tax increase is needed to support California's schools. A look at how our schools are funded makes another obvious point California is not being efficient about spending the education dollars it does have. As anyone who has lived on the margins, feared unemployment or made do with less has learned, spending money wisely leaves more money to spend.
Voters have consistently chosen to make schools the state's top spending priority, and for good reason inadequate education consigns our children and our state to a grim future. A recent poll of voters by the Public Policy Institute of California found, however, that few voters believe that money alone is the answer to improving our schools. Most say that educational quality will improve when we spend money more wisely. We agree.
It's time to make wiser choices in the way California schools are funded, so our precious dollars are directed toward giving all students a fair chance at success.