Opinion Columns & Blogs

Editorial: Don’t squander promise of new school funding

Growing up in Compton, in Richmond or in parts of Sacramento is not like growing up in Los Gatos or Beverly Hills, Gov. Jerry Brown said as he fought to overhaul how California spends money on public schools.

Brown’s vision was much needed. California will spend $61.6 billion on six million public school students in the coming year. How that money gets spent is vital to our future.

California’s new school funding system rightly reflects the truth that some kids bring disadvantages to the schoolhouse door and need additional services to thrive.

That’s why school districts like Sacramento City Unified and Twin Rivers Unified, with 70 percent to 80 percent of their students in poverty, would get annual payments of $11,000 to $12,000 per pupil. More affluent school districts such as Rocklin Unified and Davis Unified, where 20 percent of students are in poverty, would get between $8,800 and $8,900.

In an ideal world, the extra dollars for disadvantaged kids would go directly to schools. Instead, the law distributes the dollars to local districts. That is the battle.

On Thursday, the State Board of Education will make big decisions about the rules districts will need to follow when they allocate dollars to individual schools, under the new system.

The board deserves credit for listening to the 200 Californians who showed up at a November meeting to protest the first draft. It held meetings with more than 40 groups and came back with a revised draft.

It is much improved. But major loopholes remain. The board should close them before voting on Thursday.

The tension is this: Districts want maximum flexibility when deciding where the money should go. Advocates for disadvantaged kids, however, want to make sure that flexibility does not mean that extra dollars get spread among all students, instead of going to services for disadvantaged students.

The State Board’s latest draft strikes a better balance than the first. The new draft provides more transparency.

The public would be able to see, for example, that the base payment would be $7,557 for each third-grader in every school district. For third-graders whose parents are poor, there would be extra payments of $1,511 per student. Since there are poor kids in every district, every district would be eligible for that $1,511 bump.

For school districts with large concentrations of poor kids – say, Twin Rivers – the state would make additional payments, pushing the total to $12,847 for each disadvantaged child annually. The debate is over how that extra money would be spent.

Districts would have to set goals for disadvantaged kids at each school site.

All to the good.

A major problem, however, remains. The language is vague as to what to do when districts want to spend the dollars for disadvantaged students on districtwide initiatives that affect all students, such as reducing class sizes, buying tablet computers or restoring after-school programs. In the current draft, districts must show that this is the “most effective use” of funds to meet their goals for disadvantaged students. The draft does not define the word “effective.”

At a minimum, districts should have to show how these districtwide services would directly improve the academic achievement of disadvantaged kids, and not just dilute services to them.

An equally big flaw is that the draft still would allow school districts to spend extra dollars generated by disadvantaged kids for any purpose under the sun. Critics have a well-founded fear that such flexibility would lead to across-the-board salary increases for teachers, with nothing to show in improvements for disadvantaged kids. If the language is ambiguous, the collective bargaining process will determine how the money gets spent, potentially diverting it from children.

A wide array of groups – from EdTrust West to Children Now to EdVoice – has made constructive suggestions for amendments to better ensure that extra dollars help disadvantaged kids first and foremost, while still boosting local control over the current broken, inflexible state funding system. The board listened in November, and it should listen again now.

The draft still needs changes before Brown can check this off as a righteous part of his legacy.