Michael Kirst will mark a half-century in the education policy trenches next year, an anniversary that coincides with major decisions on a landmark school-finance plan he crafted, sold to Gov. Jerry Brown, and now is trying to bring to fruition as president of the California State Board of Education.
Kirst has overseen the process of trying to carry out the Local Control Funding Formula, which revamps the state’s convoluted system of distributing money across its 6.2 million-student school system. But a first draft of regulations was panned by critics and exposed a deep rift about how the formula’s extra money for the neediest students should be allocated.
The formula is the culmination of a career in education that began in 1964 when Kirst, fresh out of Harvard University with a doctorate in political economy and government, joined the then-U.S. Bureau of the Budget (now known as the Office of Management and Budget). He administered federal categorical programs, part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society agenda.
Kirst decamped for Stanford in 1969, shifting his focus from federal finance to state finance. In the mid-1970s, a mutual acquaintance introduced Kirst to Brown when Brown, making his first run for governor, needed to get up to speed about school finances after the California Supreme Court rejected the state’s school-funding system in its Serrano v. Priest decision.
“People ask me, what’s the difference now? Well, at 35 years old, we thought we had more answers than we do at 75. You realize how complex this is,” Kirst said.
In recent weeks, Kirst, a professor emeritus at Stanford University, has spent hours on the phone and in meetings with representatives of the various interests in the funding formula dispute. They fall broadly into two camps: district officials and teacher unions seeking maximum local flexibility in how the extra money is spent, and civil rights organizations and business-backed groups that say the state needs to have a central role in the money’s use.
“What you have are these two positions, which are pretty far apart. The board is wrestling with this to try to find solutions to those very different viewpoints,” Kirst said in a recent interview at the state board’s Sacramento offices.
“At first blush it’s hard to see where the middle ground is, where the compromise is. It’s hard to make everybody happy,” added Kirst. “But it’s the fourth inning of a nine-inning game.”
Major decisions will come early in 2014. At its Jan. 16 meeting, the board will consider regulations guiding the use of the formula’s supplemental and concentration funds. In March, the board has to adopt templates for the Local Control and Accountability Plan, which districts must complete by July to explain how they will spend the money to provide high-quality educational programs.
By October 2015, the state board has to adopt a plan to measure a district’s performance.
Kirst said he is optimistic of a regulation deal. But he also voiced fears of a worst-case scenario that would undercut the strong support for the funding formula. Already, there have been rumblings of legal challenges. That could put the issue back into the Legislature’s domain during an election year, when thorny subjects sometimes end up on the back burner.
“We’re not going to make everybody completely happy. But the worst thing would be if almost everybody is really unhappy,” Kirst said. “It undermines all of the good feeling that comes out of the local-control funding formula.”
There was nothing but warm words for the formula last June after bipartisan majorities of state lawmakers approved the plan as part of the current budget. Brown, Kirst and others called the formula a major improvement over the current system of allocating money to schools.
The bill left it up to the Kirst-led board to craft the details, and influential critics have piled on in recent weeks.
Last month, dozens of people spoke against a draft package of regulations deemed to be lacking assurances that the money would actually go to the neediest students. Speakers included state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, the leader of the Legislative Black Caucus and a possible future Senate leader.
Days later, Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and budget leaders in both houses sent a letter to Kirst warning that they will deal with the issue legislatively if Kirst ignores their concerns.
“I can tell you it’s not a happy letter to receive when you’re trying to implement a kind of a legacy measure on behalf of your boss,” said Bill Lucia, president and CEO of EdVoice, a school reform group. Lucia used to be executive director of the State Board of Education.
Lucia credited Kirst for coming up with the formula and good intentions. But he said Kirst and Brown erred in failing to address what Lucia said were mistakes in the June legislation that will undermine any regulatory package that tries to put state strings on how districts spend the concentration and supplemental money.
“What’s happening here is there is a sincere interest in using limited resources to help kids. But the details matter,” Lucia said. “They need to go back to the drawing board. The plan they have now is not going to work.”
Others said Kirst is on the right track. Peter Birdsall, executive director of the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, praised Kirst for sticking to his vision of giving local districts the ability to spend the money and being accountable for the results.
“This is tough work right now,” Birdsall said. “I think he’s doing an excellent job.”