California Forum

Jerry Brown fixed California’s school funding, except for one critical thing

Andrew Baloejos studies his science vocabulary at John Barrett Middle School in Carmichael, Calif. on Monday December 4, 2017. Reforms devised by Gov. Jerry Brown during the recession have vastly improved funding for public schools.
Andrew Baloejos studies his science vocabulary at John Barrett Middle School in Carmichael, Calif. on Monday December 4, 2017. Reforms devised by Gov. Jerry Brown during the recession have vastly improved funding for public schools. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Editor’s note: One in an occasional series.

Jerry Brown is such a genius sometimes. Unfortunately, he’s also frequently a stubborn man who sticks to a notion – I’d be happy never to hear the word “subsidiarity” again – even when it’s more ideology than solid policy.

Here’s the genius part: With a single stroke, he fixed the state’s abominable school-funding formula. California had a byzantine system for providing per-pupil funding that made sense to no one. Two school districts right next to each other might have the same kinds of expenses, the same demographics, but one would receive hundreds more dollars for each student than the one next door.

Switching to a fairer or at least saner system was a political non-starter. Some schools would lose dollars in order for other schools to get more, and that would mean a lot of miffed voting parents.

When Brown says local control, he means it to a troubling extent. There have been no restrictions on how the dollars were spent, aside from a generic rule that the extra money for kids facing particular challenges should be spent on them.

Where others saw the great recession, though, Brown saw an opportunity. Money at that point was tight for almost every school; by leading the Proposition 30 charge to bring in a new infusion of school money, Brown was improving everyone’s situation.

It was then easier for him to push a formula under which each school district received the same per-pupil amount, with a large added sum for low-income kids, non-English speakers and foster kids. The amounts would build up over the next several years.

In January, in Brown’s last state budget, he signaled that he would fully fund that buildup, called the Local Control Funding Formula, to the tune of $3 billion a full two years ahead of schedule.

Brown is understandably all about legacy these days. The optics are great. The problem is in the details.

Much as the schools needed this extra money, and some students need even more, Brown can’t be remembered as the Education Governor while shorting the state’s four-year colleges and universities (we’ll get to that in a few weeks), which also are educating large numbers of disadvantaged students.

Even more problematic is that when Brown says local control, he means it to a troubling extent. There have been no restrictions on how the dollars were spent, aside from a generic rule that the extra money for kids facing particular challenges should be spent on them. There was little transparency and even less accountability.

Some schools have used it wisely, on smaller class sizes. Others have put the money into teacher raises. Of course, well-paid teachers are a worthwhile investment, especially given how many teachers gave up part of their pay during the recession. But in a district with both middle-class and impoverished schools, it’s important to note that most of the money will probably go to those who teach the middle-class. Why? Because teachers with more seniority have more control over where they’re assigned, and tend to pick less challenging schools.

An even bigger concern is that there are no rules making the expenditure of that extra funding transparent, so that parents and the public can see where it’s going. The entire process has been so opaque that even Brown has called for more transparency in his latest budget message – but only at the district level, not when it comes to individual schools. The Legislature ought to put its foot down on that; this is a lot of public money and the public has a right to see how it’s spent.

Of course, local control over the money might make all the sense in the world if it brings about good results. And frankly, despite an enthusiastic new report out of UC Berkeley, it’s far too early to tell. We’re so used to expecting instant results from the latest education switcheroos that we forget that real, lasting educational improvement is a day-in, day-out affair that builds up over years. In other words, give it time.

The Berkeley study claims that the funding has made a difference, based on a statistical model that allowed the researchers to compare 11th-grade scores on the old achievement tests with those on the new ones, by linking them all to national tests. It also says that the money led to an increase in graduation rates. Considering that the state has long said the two tests are so drastically different that they cannot be compared, it seems iffy to start comparing them now. It’s also hard to connect a single reform to movement up or down; too much is continually changing in schools.

As for graduation rates, it’s possible that some of the money went to worthy programs to help students gain a diploma, but it’s also become clear in the past few years that graduation rates have become a somewhat scammy way to measure progress. Unlike test scores, they’re easy for schools to control, by pressuring teachers, lowering standards, transferring failing students and using less-than-rigorous online credit-recovery courses.

The most recent standardized test scores didn’t improve over the year before, and achievement gaps saw no narrowing. But again, that’s one year in a new testing scheme.

The question shouldn’t be whether the extra money has produced miraculous new tales of success, but how closely the state will monitor results in years to come and look for unequivocal evidence of narrowed achievement gaps – and what it will do if some school districts start showing major improvement and other schools with equal funding can’t seem to get anywhere.

Brown has a point about local decision-making. Needs differ and rigid rules from on high would more likely soak the schools in bureaucratic jargon than help their students.

But this much the state should demand: Clear rules about spending the extra sums on disadvantaged kids; transparent information about how the money is being spent at each school; a method of tracking where the funding seems to be working and where not; and some accountability so that unsuccessful schools are forced to change course and try something else. Anything less is just throwing money around and hoping that some of it, like spaghetti, sticks to the whiteboard.

Karin Klein is a veteran California journalist and commentator who has written extensively on education. She can be contacted at karinkleinmedia@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.

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