Dan Walters

Brown puts lid on school aid, may rekindle old fight

Lincoln Elementary School in a remote corner of Marin County is one of the state’s few remaining one-room schools, with a current student body of eight children.
Lincoln Elementary School in a remote corner of Marin County is one of the state’s few remaining one-room schools, with a current student body of eight children. Santa Rosa Press-Democrat file

Nothing – absolutely nothing – in the state budget is more infuriatingly complex than financing public schools for 6 million kids.

A 1988 ballot measure, Proposition 98, was supposed to end, or at least minimize, wrangling over schools, but if anything, its politics became even more impenetrable.

The late John Mockler, an education finance guru who wrote Proposition 98 for the California Teachers Association and other groups, once quipped that he made it complicated so that he would be hired to explain it and thus could afford to send his children to Stanford University.

He was only half-joking.

With Mockler’s death two years ago, only a very few folks even profess to understand how its formulas or “tests,” tied to current state revenue and past spending levels, generate a “minimum guarantee” of funding each year – and they rarely agree.

Fundamentally, therefore, governors and legislators decide how much money they can afford, or are willing to spend, for schools each year and then massage Proposition 98’s provisions (which have undergone two major revisions) to fit those decisions.

In recent years, with an expanding economy producing a bumper crop of revenue, schools have benefited handsomely. Per-pupil spending is up 50 percent over the last half-decade.

However, revenue growth has slowed, and in his 2017-18 budget, Gov. Jerry Brown takes an ultra-cautious approach that’s putting the squeeze on schools.

His budget claims an $800-plus million “overpayment” to schools over the previous two fiscal years as revenue fell short and proposes to recapture the money by reducing the 2017-18 figure, leaving schools with a barely $1 billion increase, tiny in relative terms.

Ordinarily, that wouldn’t cause a major stir, but school officials are bridling at the “overpayment” characterization, pointing out that Proposition 98 was supposed to be a financing floor, not a ceiling.

They’re also feeling the heavy impact of a new plan to shore up financing for teacher pensions, which could cost districts $700 million more next year.

While overall school financing might still increase by a minuscule amount, therefore, many individual districts could see new revenue fall short of new mandatory expenses and be forced to make cuts.

Another factor comes into play – uncertainty over whether Brown’s revenue numbers are too conservative.

The Legislature’s budget analyst, Mac Taylor, disagrees with Brown’s figures, saying they’re “probably too low.”

The dueling estimates will hang out there for a few more months, until the state counts income taxes – which are 70 percent of its revenue – after the April 15 filing deadline. We may know then whether recent softness in revenue is a short-term blip, born of uncertainty about the Donald Trump presidency’s impact, or the beginning of the recession that Brown fears.

Brown will revise both income and outgo numbers in the budget in May, setting the stage for the last few weeks of the annual budget process and perhaps for a renewal of the perennial battle over school finance that has been in remission of late.