Dan Walters: California school funding formula not easy to change

dwalters@sacbee.comOctober 2, 2012 

Assembly Bill 18 was one of the casualties as Gov. Jerry Brown waded through hundreds of bills from the hectic, final hours of the 2012 legislative session.

And therein lies a tale.

Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, carried the bill, a watered-down version of her proposal to overhaul how the $60-plus billion in state, local and federal funds are allocated to California's K-12 school districts each year.

Brownley wanted to streamline state aid and shift more money to low-performing schools with large numbers of students who are poor or "English learners," responding to criticism that the state was not focusing money on its most urgent needs.

The state Supreme Court four decades ago decreed the "equalization" of school finances, which were then rooted in property taxes.

But the state assumed the major burden for schools after the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, the level of that support was locked into the state constitution by Proposition 98 in 1988, and great disparities in spending – among the highest in the nation – among hundreds of districts evolved.

Five years ago, a massive report prepared under the aegis of Stanford University detailed the shortcomings of California schools – underfinancing, irrational funding formulas and ineffective governance. Schools need more money, the report said, but just as importantly, need to spend it more wisely to improve outcomes.

The Center for American Progress, a center-left think tank, has dubbed that concept "return on investment" and devised a complex method to rate how efficiently school systems allocate resources for maximum effect on educational performance, after adjustments for differences in financing and composition of student populations.

By its formula, California has one of the nation's lowest returns on educational investment.

Brown has endorsed a "weighted student formula" to spend more on the neediest students and schools.

However, he never submitted a specific proposal, and his tax measure – supposedly aimed at improving school finance – doesn't move in that direction. But a rival tax increase for schools, sponsored by attorney Molly Munger, does include that element.

When Brownley advocated a weighted formula in AB 18, she ran into stiff resistance. California's per-pupil spending is already well below average, in part because chronic state budget woes have cut school aid, and a weighted formula would cost some districts even more money.

Brownley dropped reform and amended AB 18 to create a task force to study the issue. But Brown vetoed it, saying, "a task force … may actually delay action on reforms" and adding, "Rather than create a task force, let's work together and craft a fair weighted student formula."

It is, however, easier said than done.

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