Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Conflict hits California’s new school finance plan

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

When Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature overhauled the distribution of state aid to California schools this year, their stated purpose was to improve the educations of poor and “English-learner” students.

Spending more on those kids to improve their subpar academic skills had wide support, not only in the educational establishment but also from civil rights groups and business leaders worried about having competent employees.

There was a substantial division, however, over how the outcomes would be monitored and evaluated.

Brown, espousing the principle of “subsidiarity,” wanted to give state and local school officials as much flexibility as possible, but that attitude didn’t sit very well with civil rights and corporate reformers.

Their concern, implied but rarely voiced openly, was that without tight state standards, the extra money would wind up in fatter paychecks for teachers and other school employees whose unions are major players in the election of local school trustees.

The reformers sponsored follow-up legislation to tighten up use of the money, but Brown vetoed Senate Bill 344, saying it “interferes with the work of the State Board of Education as it implements, through an open and transparent process, the Local Control Funding Formula.”

The president of the state school board, Michael Kirst, is the originator of what was originally called a “weighted formula.” With the veto of SB 344, Kirst and other members now will decide how tight – or how loose – the implementation standards will be, beginning at a board session this week.

SB 344’s backers are not happy with what they’ve seen so far, sharply criticizing draft regulations as being riddled with loopholes. EdVoice, an outspoken reform group, said in a letter to Kirst that the proposal “overemphasizes the finance shift toward greater flexibility but loses sight of the state’s critical role in meeting the fundamental purpose for the change.”

That concern was echoed in another letter from the Bay Area Council, a group of corporate CEOs, in concert with California Forward, Children Now and United Way, saying that under the draft rules, defining outcomes would be left to local school officials without “an objective tool for the state to ensure that districts have achieved their end of the bargain.”

The letter also notes that the Legislature, at the behest of the California Teachers Association and other elements of the state’s educational establishment, suspended academic achievement testing indefinitely, thereby eliminating a major tool for judging whether the extra money has, as promised, produced better outcomes for poor kids.

If the reformers’ fears morph into reality, something that Brown sees as a major achievement will become just another expensive boondoggle – something like his other pet project, the bullet train.