Whenever the governor or the Legislature proposes a change in how California's public schools are financed, someone almost immediately creates a spreadsheet that shows which districts would gain money and which would lose.
The losers quickly coalesce to oppose any formulaic change and that usually dooms the proposal, regardless of its merits.
Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown released a spreadsheet on his proposal to radically revamp state school aid to give more money a lot more money, eventually to districts with large numbers of poor and/or "English learner" students on the theory that they need more individualized attention.
It's probably a valid theory, although hard evidence of its efficacy is difficult to find. But by graphically demonstrating which districts would receive big injections of cash over the next several years and which wouldn't, the spreadsheet draws political battle lines.
The big winners would be big urban districts giant Los Angeles Unified particularly and small rural districts, both of which have big proportions of poor Latino students. The big losers, financially speaking, would be districts in mostly white and affluent residential enclaves such as Beverly Hills Unified and those in the tony suburbs of San Francisco. Eventually, the former would receive about 50 percent more per-pupil financing than the latter.
Critics are already noting that in addition to a large state aid boost under the governor's new formula, Los Angles Unified would retain hundreds of millions of dollars in a special pot of money, with the obfuscating name of "targeted instructional improvement bloc grant," that Brown exempted from the overall streamlining of state aid.
TIIB, as it's called, was originally ginned up to pay L.A. Unified for its highly controversial busing program to offset racial segregation in the 1970s, but has remained on the books ever since. Critics see its retention as a payoff to the huge district and its political allies.
Brown's plan received qualified endorsements last week from the Public Policy Institute of California and the Legislature's budget analyst, Mac Taylor, although PPIC says it ignores federal funds for the educationally disadvantaged and Taylor is critical of retaining TIIB for L.A. Unified.
Getting past suburban opposition will be tough. One notion being floated would be to soften the opposition with a constitutional amendment lowering the vote threshold for local "parcel taxes," thereby making it easier for the affluent districts to close the funding gap in Brown's plan.
In the overall context, however, the forthcoming school finance battle is essentially a class conflict neither the first nor the last in a state that is stratifying along economic, ethnic, cultural and even geographic lines.