Dan Walters: Jerry Brown's school spending plan faces test

dwalters@sacbee.comFebruary 3, 2013 

When Gov. Jerry Brown demanded that the Legislature alter the state's infinitely complex school finance system to provide more aid to districts with large numbers of poor and/or "English learner" students, he declared it to be a moral imperative.

"Equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice," he told legislators last month.

It was not the first time Brown had issued the demand, although this year's version is markedly different from the one he aired in 2012. The state now has more money to spend on schools from new sales and income taxes, and he had gotten some push-back from school districts in affluent, mostly white suburbs that would have been hit in the pocketbook.

Nevertheless, as the administration gets specific about its "local control funding formula," local school officials are trying to figure out what they would and would not get, and the issue's divisive politics are beginning to jell.

The latest plan provides a "base grant" of about $6,800 per student and then, over several years, adds as much as $5,000 to districts that have above-average concentrations of English learners and students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, the latter factor being the biggest variable.

It's clear that large urban districts and small farm-belt districts have the highest concentrations and would be winners. In relative terms, affluent suburban schools would be losers.

One of the biggest winners would be immense Los Angeles Unified, which has more than 10 percent of California's school kids, 73 percent of whom are Latino and 76 percent of whom qualify for subsidized lunches. It could eventually see supplemental grants of 40-plus percent, an extra $2 billion or so.

In stark contrast, adjacent Beverly Hills Unified would get virtually nothing extra because of its single-digit levels of subsidized lunches.

The San Joaquin Valley's Parlier Unified is at the other end of the scale, with 100 percent of its students qualifying for low-cost or free lunches, which could raise its grant by 50-plus percent under Brown's plan.

Falling in between are some districts, such as Folsom Cordova Unified east of Sacramento, whose schools range from zero to 81 percent on the lunch factor. That could have the effect of giving its equally poor students less money than those in places such as Parlier.

Suburban districts are organizing for political war and apparently have an ally in the new chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee, Democrat Joan Buchanan.

She was on the board of affluent San Ramon Valley Unified School District – which has very low levels of reduced-price lunches – for 18 years and has expressed skepticism about Brown's plan. Assembly leadership says it must go through her committee and other legislative processes, not merely be in the budget.

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