From its inception, the most worrisome aspect of Gov. Jerry Brown’s overhaul of public school finances was his insistence on “subsidiarity.”
As he defined it, it meant that the state would pump more money into school districts with high numbers of poor and/or English-learner students, remove restrictions on existing pots of state aid and trust local officials to spend it wisely.
Education reform groups worried aloud that without strong direction from Sacramento, unions, particularly the California Teachers Association, would exert their influence on local school boards to claim much of the new money for salary increases.
The battle was joined in the Legislature and in the Brown-appointed state Board of Education, which was to write rules governing the Local Control Funding Formula.
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In the main, Brown’s hands-off attitude has prevailed. Local implementation plans are being drafted in hundreds of school districts, and the unions are pressing for salary increases, saying they are needed to make up for years of austerity and to combat a looming teacher shortage.
That raised a question: Could money meant for high-needs students be legally used for broad salary increases?
In February, Jim Yovino, the Fresno County superintendent of schools, posed the question directly to the state Department of Education.
Two months later, department official Jeff Breshears told Yovino – and by extension, everyone else – that the “supplemental and concentration funds” meant to help the high-needs students could be used for salary increases only under “some limited circumstances.”
If all teachers in a district were granted a raise without any demonstrable benefit to high-needs students, Breshears wrote, “it would not be appropriate.”
Education reformers saw it as a minor victory in their quest to have the new money concentrated on specific students, but it also generated a backlash among those who saw the billions of dollars in new aid as a potential salary bonanza.
Last week, state schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson sent a letter to superintendents that skinned back on Breshears’ relatively strict interpretation of the LCFF rules, saying it “supersedes that letter.”
The money could be used for general salary increases, Torlakson declared, if they furthered LCFF goals. He suggested, as rationales, that a district is having “difficulties in recruiting, hiring or retaining qualified staff” or is experiencing high teacher turnover.
Thus, Torlakson opened the door to salary increases widely, a door that Breshears had left only slightly ajar.
It’s no secret that Torlakson, a former teacher and legislator, is closely aligned with the CTA. It and other unions spent heavily last year to get him re-elected, turning back a challenge from Marshall Tuck, who was backed by education reformers.
But maybe that’s just a coincidence.