One day after Gov. Jerry Brown called his education financing plan a civil rights issue and promised opponents "the battle of their lives," Senate Democrats said Thursday that their counterproposal is better for low-income students.
"The governor, obviously, came out firing yesterday, and we take it all in stride," Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said at the Capitol. "But I do want to say that no group is more committed to civil rights and the cause of low-income kids than my colleagues."
In a proposal to dramatically overhaul California's education financing system, Brown is seeking to give local school districts greater flexibility in how they spend state money, while also directing more money to school districts with higher proportions of students who are poor or learning English.
While offering conceptual support for Brown's plan, Senate Democrats would eliminate a proposal by the Democratic governor to award districts additional money if more than half of their students are low income or meet other criteria, instead distributing that money partly on a per-pupil basis for all students and partly on a per-pupil basis for disadvantaged students.
Brown argued Wednesday that districts with high proportions of disadvantaged students face unique challenges that merit additional funding. Instead of emphasizing aid to poor school districts, Steinberg said, lawmakers want to peg funding individually to disadvantaged students and schools.
Brown and Steinberg, D-Sacramento, have both said they are open to negotiation, but Brown appears to be less patient than lawmakers.
While Brown is seeking adoption of his education proposal by the June budget deadline, Democratic senators are including their proposal in a policy bill that could remain unsettled until later this year.
"This shouldn't be rushed," said Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco. "And this policy bill gives us a little more time in case we need it."
Relatively robust income tax returns so far this year may provide additional school money that could ease any negotiation between Brown and Senate Democrats. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office estimates revenue by the end of the fiscal year may be "a few billion dollars" above estimates. Much of that money could be required to be allocated to schools and community colleges under Proposition 98, California's school-funding guarantee.
Steinberg said that if such a surplus materializes "it can only help further and facilitate this discussion."
"It's good, it helps, more money," he said.
Brown said Wednesday that anyone opposed to his proposal would "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."
Steinberg said Brown will have to engage with lawmakers on the matter.
"Frankly, we're glad that we provoked a strong reaction," Steinberg said, "because it is time to engage with the leaders and the members who have the responsibility to actually cast the votes and pass any change, any major change to the way we finance public education."
Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.