Dan Walters

Brown’s veto blocks tighter oversight of school money for poor kids

Gov. Jerry Brown, center, vetoed a bill by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, left, that would have required better accounting for spending tied to poor and “English-learner” students in California.
Gov. Jerry Brown, center, vetoed a bill by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, left, that would have required better accounting for spending tied to poor and “English-learner” students in California. Associated Press file

It was not surprising that Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed Assembly Bill 2548, despite its unanimous, bipartisan passage.

The bill, carried by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, and backed by a broad coalition of education reform and civil rights groups, would have tightened the State Board of Education’s “multiple measures” approach to overseeing how local schools are spending extra state aid meant to help poor and “English-learner” students.

Weber, et al., believe that without tight oversight, centered on academic test results, extra funds may not be concentrated on closing the gap between “high-needs” kids and more privileged classmates.

That puts them at odds with the education establishment, which wants only soft accountability, and Brown, who espouses “subsidiarity,” which he defines as trusting local school officials to act responsibly.

In his veto message, Brown praised the school board’s plan as a “thoughtful and integrated federal, state and local accountability system.”

By happenstance, Brown killed AB 2548 just a few days after teachers in the Yuba City Unified School District ended a seven-day strike over the measure’s underlying conflict.

Teachers wanted Yuba City Unified to spend extra money it receives for having a large number of poor children on raises for all teachers. The district balked, but the parties finally agreed on a three-year contract that relies in part on the extra money but also requires teachers to do more work.

The Yuba City situation is not unique. Throughout the state, school districts and their local teachers’ unions are dickering over how much of the extra money will be used for salary increases. And in some districts, where the unions are particularly influential, the money has been ceded quietly, without strikes, threats of strikes or other rancor.

The situation stems from something that occurred last year.

Fresno County’s school superintendent, Jim Yovino, asked the state Department of Education whether the extra money for high-needs children could be used for salary increases, and two months later, department official Jeff Breshears replied that they could finance such pay boosts only under “some limited circumstances.”

Giving all teachers a raise with the money without any demonstrable benefit to the targeted students “would not be appropriate,” Breshears wrote.

The advice dismayed teacher unions, and a few weeks later, state schools chief Tom Torlakson, who had received heavy union support in a tough 2014 re-election campaign, countermanded Breshears.

He declared that extra money from the Local Control Funding Formula could be used for salary increases if districts are having “difficulties in recruiting, hiring or retaining qualified staff” or are seeing high teacher turnover.

That very subjective rationale opened the door widely for unions to demand salary increases from LCFF funds in Yuba City and elsewhere – exactly what the education reform and civil rights groups have feared would happen without tight accountability for outcomes that Weber’s bill envisioned.

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