Dan Walters: Love could kill Jerry Brown's school plan

dwalters@sacbee.comMay 13, 2013 

Gov. Jerry Brown's ambitious plan to overhaul how California schools are financed may be loved to death.

Dozens of school finance players, including Brown's fellow Democrats in the Legislature, have expressed conceptual support for Brown's plan.

However, they attach caveats that their full support would depend on his accepting some changes. The net effect of all those demands, if granted, could be to leave the present system – one that no one defends – largely intact.

Brown's plan embraces billions of new school dollars expected from voters' passage of new, albeit temporary, sales and income taxes last year.

He would eliminate most "categorical aids" – billions of dollars earmarked for specific educational purposes – and combine them with new funds and pre-existing state aid and local property taxes to create one big pot of school money, $60-plus billion a year and growing.

Each school district would, under the plan, receive a uniform basic allocation for each student, about $6,800 per year.

The remainder of the pot, some $20 billion, would provide 35 percent "supplemental grants" for districts' poor and "English-learner" students, plus another 35 percent in "concentration grants" to systems with more than 50 percent of such students.

Democratic legislative leaders, reflecting criticism from suburban districts, say the concentration grants should be allocated on a broader basis.

Brown's plan, they argue, would shortchange some students who need more help in districts that don't qualify for the extra money.

The influential California School Boards Association says more money should go into "base funding" and that another $17 billion is needed to raise California schools to the national per-pupil spending average.

Brown's plan is also taking heat from advocates for the dozens of categorical aid programs, such as those who believe that vocational education is already being shorted by local officials and would be devastated without earmarked money.

As criticism has mounted, Brown has responded by calling it a civil rights issue and promising opponents they would "get the battle of their lives, because I'm not going to give up until the last hour, and I'm going to fight with everything I have."

Brown, however, may have undercut his effort to cast the issue in terms of high and unshakable moral principle. His plan preserves a special pot of school integration money for Los Angeles Unified School District, which critics see as a gesture by the governor to buy political support.

If he's willing to give LAUSD special treatment for political reasons, they imply, Brown should be open to changes that benefit other stakeholders in the 6 million student system.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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