As California embarks on a monumental opportunity to implement a new funding model for public education, we must avoid the growing trap that has overwhelmed the conversation.
Despite what you may have been led to believe, there is no disagreement about local control of public education funding or about our disadvantaged students needing more support. Rather, the argument is over the potential negative impact on thousands of California students who would be made "invisible" with the funding proposal supported by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Currently, school districts receive funding that can be spent at the district's discretion along with additional funds that must be spent in specific ways on restricted programs. The governor's proposal provides for greater local control. The governor is also proposing to provide additional funding for certain targeted student populations. Unfortunately, he is providing this funding based on broad averages instead of actual children.
The proposal is a trap that ignores a profound reality: Students who have identical needs in similar, or even the same neighborhoods, would be treated much differently only because they live on the wrong side of a school district boundary. It's a funding model that creates winners and losers, and it's perplexing that there can't be a better solution.
Consider the 13 school districts in Sacramento County. The governor's proposal would strip away funding from English language learners and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds in one district but provide additional funding for students with the same needs in a neighboring district.
The result would be that students with the same needs, in the same county and in many cases the same neighborhood would receive significantly different resources. The governor's proposal does, indeed, make some students invisible.
Ultimately, we must face the critical issue of adequate state funding for public education overall. We need an honest, public conversation about how many dollars it takes to properly educate each child in California. What is the use of building a new school finance system based on a flawed model?
Senate Democrats believe it is critical to support every student in California. They agree with Brown that there are students who require additional support.
Where the differences arise is that Brown's proposal helps students based on district boundaries and street addresses not on the needs of individual students. Under the Senate's version, the money would be based on needs of specific students, not on the name of their school district.
Funding would be spread more equally among students with high needs.
Unfortunately, this complex problem is getting reduced to a schoolyard taunt: "Rich suburban districts have enough funding and privilege. They should be ashamed of themselves for being greedy." If our staff overheard this conversation on a real schoolyard between children, we would do what we could to create more light and less heat.
California has the opportunity to recognize that education funding must be designed to support students, especially those who have been identified in the governor's proposal, without creating adversarial positions.
It appears the critical conversation that the Legislature is trying to start with the governor is not about being greedy, but about finding a funding system that addresses the needs of the targeted populations as well as all students.
The general principles embedded in the current funding proposal can be achieved through civil discussion and deep commitment to the needs of all students. The governor is right when he says "equal treatment of unequals is not justice." Of course, neither is unequal treatment of equals.
I encourage Brown and the Legislature to forge a funding model that supports the education deserved by all students, no matter which district they happen to call home. The needs are many. So, too, are the opportunities.
Steven M. Ladd is superintendent of the Elk Grove Unified School District.