Editorial: Governor on the right track by overhauling state's antiquated school funding system

Published: Sunday, Mar. 10, 2013 - 2:00 am | Page 6E
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 10, 2013 - 9:58 am

Gov. Jerry Brown recognizes the importance of public education to California's future. "Nothing is more determinative of our future," he said in his State of the State address, "than how we teach our children." He continued: "If we fail at this, we will sow growing social chaos and inequality that no law can rectify."

So he proposes, for the second year, to overhaul California's antiquated, bureaucratic, ineffective education funding system, replacing it with what he calls a "Local Control Funding Formula."

The buzz is very different today than it was last year when the Legislature killed the idea. The governor's tweaks have even the skeptics saying, "This is the right path; let's make this work."

Suburban districts for years have been screaming for more flexibility from state mandates. Urban districts have sought recognition for the fact that they educate more needy students.

Brown's new formula for funding schools should satisfy both.

It would set a base per-pupil amount to cover the basic cost of education for the average California student – adjusting for grade level.

But Brown's proposal would go far beyond that.

He would eliminate most "categorical" programs that require districts to spend money on a designated purpose. That would free up money and give authority to school districts, Brown explains, "to fashion the kind of programs they see their students need." Instead of state legislators dictating where money goes, local school boards would decide how money is spent.

Brown also addresses the issue of inequity. Growing up in Meadowview is different from growing up in the Fab 40s neighborhood in east Sacramento – that is, not all students come to school with the same advantages and may need extra help to get to the starting line with their more advantaged classmates.

So Brown's new formula would allot extra per-pupil funding for students with greater needs – students who are low income or English learners.

And where schools have high concentrations of students with disadvantages – a double whammy for an individual trying to overcome his or her own poverty or language skills – Brown would allot even more per- pupil funding.

As Brown has said, "Our future depends not on across-the-board funding, but in disproportionately funding those schools that have disproportionate challenges." All school districts would see increased per-student funding over the next six years. Districts with higher numbers of disadvantaged students would get more. That is as it should be.

For example, suburban Rocklin Unified and Davis Unified, where fewer than 10 percent of students are English learners and about 20 percent are in poverty, would get between $8,800 and $8,900 per student. Urban Sacramento City Unified and Twin Rivers Unified, with more than 20 percent English learners and 70 percent to 80 percent in poverty, would get $11,000 to $12,000 per student.

Since Brown is putting a priority on local flexibility, legislators have to figure out how to ensure that dollars allocated to districts for more needy kids actually get to the schools that the kids attend – without resurrecting state mandates.

Pressures certainly will build locally to allocate the money equally to all schools. We already see some of that in Sacramento City Unified with pushback from more affluent neighborhoods against extra resources for the superintendent's "priority schools" in low-income neighborhoods.

The governor's proposal does have provisions requiring each district to show how it will spend the money from the state, with the county offices of education reviewing district goals and outcomes. But they're vague and need tightening.

The Senate held a hearing last week and the Assembly holds a hearing on Tuesday. The accountability piece is the key element that lawmakers must pin down. Brown's call for fairness, justice and equity is the right one, but is meaningless if the extra money in his new formula fails to reach disadvantaged students.

The Bee's past stands

"Overall, the governor's emphasis is on decreasing state regulation and increasing local flexibility, something conservatives and liberals alike can support …"

– Jan. 15, 2012

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