Reforming California's convoluted school finance system what former Sen. Joe Simitian called the Winchester Mystery House of school funding has become one of the issues du jour in Sacramento. This spring we'll find out how easy it is to pick at it (again) and how hard it is to really restructure it.
Part of the difficulty is that we don't really know how much it costs to adequately educate each of the 6 million students in the great mix of kids in California's schools.
Nor can we agree on what we want of our schools can't agree about testing, about homework, about teaching evolution, about social promotion, about bilingual education, about teacher evaluation, about standards or much of anything else.
The Winchester Mystery House is, in effect, the result of four decades of ad hoc reforms, each of which was intended to solve the problem of the day.
For Gov. Jerry Brown and many others, today's rallying cry is local control. But it was the failures and inequities of local control that brought us the categorical programs that Brown is now getting rid of.
Brown's other magic bullet is a "weighted funding formula," now redubbed the "Local Control Funding Formula," which will replace those categoricals with a funding scheme giving districts with large numbers of poor students and English learners more money per student than districts get for other students.
Obviously educating them costs more, but how much no one knows. Various theories and "costing out" formulas have been floated about how to do that, but none has been found terribly satisfactory. To take the simplest problem: What's the trade-off between the high per-pupil cost of small rural schools maybe one teacher for eight or 10 students and the cost of busing them many miles to a bigger school? Not to mention the cost in community morale.
And so the formula tends to be ground through the same political sausage-making machine as school funding always is.
And the money won't follow the students like a voucher. It will go to the districts, which will determine how to spend it. And there all the familiar political forces will be at work influential groups of parents, unions, maybe the business community. The parents of the neediest students will again have the least say.
Who will assure that those students get the teachers, the books, the resources, the high expectations they're entitled to? And if a district doesn't deliver, who will intervene for the kids, and how long will it take? Where's the cavalry?
There's research showing that when districts get new money, they tend to spend it in the same way they spend all other money. If 60 percent of the existing budget goes to salaries, $60 of the next $100 will go to salaries, too. Will Jerry Brown's reforms break them of that habit?
And in California, the biggest anomaly is Proposition 13. Most of us say we love local control, but will we ever return to the locals the taxing authority that will make local control real?
There was a time when local business people and other moderates interested in education ran for school boards and other local offices. After the passage of Proposition 13 protected them against sharp property tax increases, many lost interest and the unions became the major funders of local elections. Union members and their allies began to dominate many large districts, Sacramento among them.
Nonetheless, there'll be lots of support from good people for Brown's proposal.
"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," says the estimable Ted Lempert, a former assemblyman who heads Children Now.
"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."
But in education as in many other areas, there are no magic bullets. The whole history of school reform is a cautionary tale about expecting too much.
That history also teaches us never to forget that the longest distance on Earth is that between the intention of policymakers and what goes on in the head of the kid in the classroom.
And in the end, of course, although we pretend otherwise, schools alone can't address all our educational inadequacies. They begin in the community, in the lack of decent preschool programs, in health and nutrition problems, and in the historic anti-intellectualism of American culture. In a lot of places still, the score of the Friday football game is more important than the SAT scores of the players.
Yes, many schools can do better, and we should expect them to, but as the sausage machine begins to grind, don't expect too much.