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Editorial: Kids from across state get lesson in school politics

They came in buses from across the state to march from Westminster Church to the state Capitol to the headquarters of the California Department of Education. They carried signs that read “Improve Then Approve” and “Close the Loophole.” They chanted. They prepared handwritten testimony.

More than 100 high school students and their parents sat, mostly patiently, through hours of presentations and testimony by an overflow crowd at Thursday’s State Board of Education meeting. Arcane acronyms were bandied about: LEA, SBE, CDE, OAL, LCAP, LCFF, ELL.

The bureaucratese was incomprehensible. But students knew exactly why they were there: to make sure that rules drawn to implement the state’s new funding formula don’t dilute the impact of funds intended to improve academic achievement of disadvantaged kids.

One student marveled that between November and January, their ideas had been consolidated into the revised draft, though “more work needs to be done.”

“We feel heard and validated,” she said, a sentiment that other students applauded.

Among the 400 people who signed up to testify, the lines were drawn between two groups.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, who was born to sharecroppers in Arkansas and went on to become a professor at San Diego State University, cautioned against diluting funding for disadvantaged kids by spreading it across districtwide programs. She urged the board not to fall into handing out “a little for everybody, and a lot for nobody.”

For their part, school district superintendents, school board members and their statewide organizations lined up to support spending flexibility. Los Angeles Unified superintendent John Deasy described this as a matter of “confidence in local leadership.”

State Board member Sue Burr, an assistant superintendent in the Elk Grove Unified School District from 2000 to 2003, acknowledged that the board would have to find ways to address remaining concerns:

Tightening up the use of funds targeted for disadvantaged kids on districtwide programs.

• Defining “effective” when directing districts to make the “most effective” use of funds to meet their goals for disadvantaged students.

• Strengthening oversight of district spending by county offices of education to ensure that dollars actually go toward improving academic achievement of disadvantaged kids.

Gov. Jerry Brown made an appearance, listened to testimony and offered a few words in support of the new system he helped create. He reiterated his principle of “subsidiarity,” a word most Californians probably had never heard before one of Brown’s veto messages in 2012. Now a more common part of the lexicon, he doesn’t have to explain that it means more local control.

Brown spoke of the importance of family, parish, city and school. Recognizing his audience, he said students have responsibility as well, “The only I that can learn is the student,” to which parents nodded.

The governor said little about the matter at hand, only that the regulations were getting better, indicating some interest in additional improvements after the day’s give-and-take.

Education advocacy groups organized the students attendance. Still, the students’ sincere interest was heartening and speaks to the elegance of the new funding system. As Jannelle Kubinec of WestEd said at the start of the meeting, the new funding formula takes California from being a state with one of the most complicated education funding systems to one with the most simple.

The students missed school to come to the capital, but they got an education in civic engagement that will last a lifetime.