California Forum

California has at best a C+ school budget system. Why not let kids do school finance?

Students like these ones at Madison Elementary School in North Highlands, Calif., are beneficiaries of California’s school finance system. But the system is confusing, and some schools have even given the students a role in what is known as “participatory budgeting.”
Students like these ones at Madison Elementary School in North Highlands, Calif., are beneficiaries of California’s school finance system. But the system is confusing, and some schools have even given the students a role in what is known as “participatory budgeting.” pkitagaki@sacbee.com

California education finances are an unholy mess – with incomprehensible budget formulas, equity funding that doesn’t produce equity, and cuts to schools even during the current economic expansion. And our state’s so-called education leaders refuse to fix the system.

We should let the kids fix it instead.

You might argue that decisions about the $80 billion that California spends annually on schools should be made exclusively by adults. Except that we’ve already let the adults do it, and it would be impossible for the kids to do any worse.

This isn’t a modest proposal: I’m as serious as a month’s detention. To fashion something workable from California’s broken education-funding system, we should give budget powers to the students themselves.

It’s not a radical idea. Students already make financial decisions in schools in San Jose, Sacramento, Phoenix and Chicago – often about school-site capital spending – as part of a popular process called participatory budgeting. New York Mayor Bill De Blasio recently gave all his city’s public high schools these budget powers.

Typically, students in these processes spend less than $100,000 (though Paris, France allows students to allocate $10 million). But given California’s problems, we should expand participatory budgeting for bigger budgets at the district and statewide level.

You might argue that decisions about the $80 billion that California spends annually on schools should be made exclusively by adults.

Except that we’ve already let the adults do it, and it would be impossible for the kids to do any worse.

The logical place for the kids to start making decisions involves the latest faulty adult attempt to fix education funding: 2013’s Local Control Funding Formula, or LCFF.

LCFF replaced existing spending categories with a new formula to direct more money to poorer school districts. This LCFF system also required school districts to work with communities on Local Control and Accountability Plans, or LCAPs, for spending the money. Governor Jerry Brown has touted this as a democratic advance.

But, in practice, it’s not democratic. The Local Control and Accountability Plans aren’t local, don’t provide accountability, and aren’t even plans. Instead of setting their own goals, communities must answer complicated questions posed by the state, creating long, bureaucratic documents. Having to read one should be prohibited under the Geneva Convention.

Without real plans, LCFF spending is becoming a multi-billion-dollar black hole. It’s not clear whether the dollars are used for equity purposes, like closing the achievement gaps between disadvantaged students and other students.

This uncertainty seems just fine with state officials: Jerry Brown has said no one should expect achievement gaps with disadvantaged students to be closed.

In other words, the grownups have surrendered. We should turn to students to fill the void. The most proven, democratic method would be participatory budgeting.

In recent years, schools have begun using participatory budgeting. In these processes, students, along with administrators and teachers, study a question, and make plans that are put up to a public vote of the school community. In California, participatory budgeting has been used at Sacramento’s Met High School and in San Jose’s East Side Union High School District, where students voted to restore a driver’s education program targeted for budget cuts.

Scaling such processes up in order to budget LCFF money would be challenging, but doable. Students in each school district could elect their fellow students to committees that would decide how best to spend the money. The plans made by those student committees then would go back to the student voters for approval.

This would be more than just a real civics class for California kids. It would provide a dose of democracy – and authentic local control – for an ineffective system dominated by a few adult interests in Sacramento.

Student control of school budgets shouldn’t stop at LCFF. I’d love to see today’s students replace the misbegotten constitutional formula at the heart of California school funding – Proposition 98, approved in 1988, well before today’s public school students were born.

Prop. 98’s funding guarantee has kept school funding below the national average for a generation. Surely California’s students can design something better.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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