Editorial: Chance to lift up disadvantaged K-12 students

Published: Sunday, Jun. 9, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 6E

Legislators have six days to meet the constitutional deadline for passing a budget. It could be legacy time.

The state constitution makes education a top priority. The Legislature "shall provide" for "a system of common schools" because "a general diffusion of knowledge and intelligence" is "essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people."

Yet our education finance system does not reflect that. For several decades, California has not had an education finance system adequate to meet the state's needs.

In his most ambitious overhaul effort yet, Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed to dramatically change how California funds education. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles, in their final years in the Legislature, should get behind the governor's effort.

Brown's idea is to replace state-mandated categorical programs with a new formula that provides a basic level of funding, with additional money for disadvantaged students and those learning English.

Unfortunately, the Senate and Assembly have versions that would lop off key elements of the governor's plan and, worse, keep in place some of the categorical programs that add enormous complexity and inflexibility to our education funding system.

Certainly, every categorical program has a constituency bent on preserving it.

Legislators should resist the temptation to tinker Brown's formula into nothingness.

The principle behind Brown's proposal is fundamental: Funding should be driven by student needs. Not all students come to school with the same advantages. Some need more resources to get to the starting line in the race for success in school.

Brown's three-part formula is simple and would set the right foundation for linking funding to need and academic performance:

Base: 80 cents of each state education dollar would go toward per-pupil funding for all students to cover the basic costs of education – teachers, principals and staff, textbooks and materials, adequate facilities.

Supplement: 16 cents of each dollar would go toward extra per-pupil funding for students who come from lower-income families or who are learning English.

Concentration: Poor students in high-poverty schools face greater education challenges than poor students in more affluent schools, a double disadvantage, so 4 cents of each dollar would go toward grants for school districts with high numbers of disadvantaged students.

The concentration part of Brown's formula is essential. Today, districts with larger shares of economically disadvantaged students often receive less per-student funding than districts with more affluent students, according to a California Budget Project analysis.

For example, in Elk Grove Unified, 55 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. The district gets $8,033 per student. Not far away, San Juan Unified has a smaller share of disadvantaged students (47 percent) but gets more per student funding ($8,734).

Legislators should share Brown's urgency to change that and reject the one-year delay that the Senate proposes. As Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jonathan Raymond told the editorial board, "Another year of wait-and-see is another year of exacerbating gaps between haves and have-nots."

Reject also the urge to maintain categorical funding for various things, such as career technical education. Instead of mucking up Brown's funding formula, hold districts accountable for academic outcomes that include measures of students' preparedness for career and college. Get out of the categorical funding mindset.

Californians shouldn't delude themselves that changing the funding formula will solve all of the state's education problems.

But Brown's proposal would be a big stride forward.

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