Facing resistance at the Capitol and in suburban school districts to his effort to shift more education money to California's poor and English-learning students, Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday called his measure a civil rights issue and promised opponents "the battle of their lives."
The education financing proposal is a central part of Brown's budget plan and an emerging source of division between the Democratic governor and lawmakers of his own party.
"This is a matter of equity and civil rights," Brown said at a news conference flanked by local school officials. "So if people are going to fight it, they're going to get the battle of their lives, because I'm not going to give up until the last hour, and I'm going to fight with everything I have, and whatever we have to bring to bear in this battle, we're bringing it."
Brown's remarks came less than 24 hours after Senate Democrats expressed reservations about significant elements of Brown's plan, and just hours before Assembly Democrats began their first hearing on the matter in the Assembly Education Committee.
Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, an Alamo Democrat who chairs the committee, said her intent was "not to pick a fight with the governor" but to "work with him" on his plan.
Nevertheless, she said, "it's up to the Legislature to really get into the policy and do all we can to make sure we get it right."
Brown is seeking to give local school districts greater flexibility in how they spend state money by eliminating most of California's "categorical" funding pots of money that can be used only for certain purposes.
In a proposal to dramatically change how California funds the education of more than 6 million schoolchildren, Brown is also seeking to direct more money to districts with higher proportions of students who are poor or learning English.
Need is greater in Oakland, Brown said, than in Orinda or Beverly Hills.
"The facts of life are deep inequities from the Oregon border to the Mexican border, and I think we ought to deal with that in the best way we possibly can," Brown said. "And education gives people a chance, a fishing rod, as people say, not just a fish."
John Deasy, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, said Brown's proposal "brings to life the promise of equity long overdue in this state."
In a development that could help Brown make his case, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said Wednesday it had filed a civil rights lawsuit against the state claiming thousands of students who need English language instruction are not receiving it.
Brown's budget document includes an additional $1.6 billion to implement the new funding formula. In addition to a base, per-pupil level of funding for all students, it would provide supplemental funding for students who are poor, learning English or in foster care, and it would provide even more money to districts in which more than 50 percent of students are classified as disadvantaged.
The Brown administration has said no school will receive less than they do now under the new formula, and over the first five years of implementation the administration projects that per-student funding statewide will increase by more than $2,700.
Still, the proposal would generally be more advantageous for urban and rural districts than wealthier, suburban districts, and officials in those areas have raised opposition.
"I think raising the level of funding for all students is what we need to think about first," said Mary Shelton, superintendent of the San Ramon Valley Unified School District, a relatively affluent district. "There's some kind of level of funding that is needed in order to educate any student, no matter where they're from."
A highly critical legislative analysis of Brown's proposal noted that Brown's formula "fails to restore all districts to their 2007-08 purchasing power," and the California School Boards Association said in a prepared statement that additional funding for the state's neediest students "cannot come at the expense of adequate base funding for schools."
Senate Democrats are expected today to propose an alternative education plan that would reduce the aid Brown hopes to give needy students, eliminating Brown's proposal to award districts additional money if more than half of their students are low income or meet other criteria.
The lawmakers' proposal would instead distribute that money partly on a per-pupil basis for all students and partly on a per-pupil basis for disadvantaged students.
The Senate proposal would also put off the overhaul for a year.
Brown has been seeking to remake California's education finance formula since he was running for governor in 2010, and the third-term governor said Wednesday he will "fight any effort to dilute this bill."
He failed to secure legislative support for a similar school funding proposal last year.
Of his prospects this year, Brown said, "I think at the end of the day we have a very good chance here, but it's going to take a big battle to get it across the finish line."
That Brown found it necessary to appear Wednesday at a news conference with his supporters is likely an indication "the momentum isn't quite as strong as he had hoped," said Bob Blattner, an education lobbyist.
With nearly two months before the state budget deadline, Blattner said a compromise funding formula remains possible.
"I think that anyone you talk to will say the current system is broken and we aren't spending enough money on disadvantaged kids so there's a consensus there, there's a consensus that this is a great opportunity," Blattner said. "Now the question is, 'How do you get it right?' "
At the Assembly hearing Wednesday, Assembly members raised technical questions as well as broad concerns about equity and accountability.
"This is probably the most sweeping, far-reaching proposal related to school finance and governance in decades around here," said Rick Simpson, deputy chief of staff and education adviser to Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez. "We thought it was important that it be vetted publicly."
BROWN'S SCHOOL FUNDING PLAN
Here are the two main provisions of Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to overhaul California's school funding system and some arguments for and against.
Eliminates most "categorical" funding pots, in which state money can be used by school districts only for certain purposes.
Brown says: Provides greater flexibility for local officials to address local needs.
Opponents say: Eliminates guarantees for programs and services the state deems significant.
Directs more money to school districts with higher proportions of students who are poor or learning English.
Brown says: Provides more money to help California's neediest students.
Opponents say: Shortchanges wealthier suburban districts.
Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.