California School Funding: Jerry Brown To Pursue Sweeping Overhaul

California's School System Braces For Major Overhaul

SACRAMENTO -- In what promises to be one of his most significant policy moves this year, Gov. Jerry Brown will pursue a sweeping overhaul of the way California schools are funded, changing the way money has been allocated for four decades.

Although the administration hasn't released specifics, Brown wants to simplify funding streams, giving more local control to school boards and more money to districts with low-income students and those who don't speak English fluently.

He also wants to wipe out dozens of rules that districts must now follow to receive billions of state dollars annually. Some of those mandates, such as a requirement to limit class size in exchange for additional money, were suspended because of Sacramento's persistent budget problems but are set to resume by 2015.

Brown and his advisers met with a large committee of educators to discuss the funding proposal three times in November, tweaking an idea that fell flat when he introduced it last year. And the governor told the Los Angeles Times he is ready to unveil it again in his 2013-14 budget, expected to be released next week.

"The reality is in some places students don't enjoy the same opportunities that people have in other places," Brown said. "This is a way to balance some of life's chances."

The governor faced enormous opposition when he sought to change the funding formula last year, with many school districts concerned about a massive shift in resources from well-off districts to poorer ones. Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, who heads the Assembly Education Committee, had said she was concerned the new formula could hurt suburban schools.

But after several extensive meetings between Brown's education advisers and school officials, there appears to be more willingness to consider his proposal, some involved in the discussions told this newspaper Wednesday.

With potentially billions more for schools in the coming budget because of the passage of his Proposition 30 tax-hike initiative in November, Brown is now slicing a bigger pie rather than having to take pie away from some districts, as was the case last year.

"The passage of the initiative changed the tone of whether this idea was feasible and desirable," said Michael Kirst, president of the state Board of Education, who helped create the new plan. "The resistance is not as high as last year."

But Kevin Gordon, a school lobbyist and founding partner of the Sacramento-based Capitol Advisors Group, said challenges still remain. Critical and popular programs such as adult education and career tech are at risk of taking big hits if program mandates are eliminated, he said.

"It creates a dynamic where cash-strapped districts may stop doing some very important things because they're up against the choice where they don't have the luxury to continue them," Gordon said. "That's the problem with getting rid of 50 to 60 programs. You say they have a choice, but they don't really because they're struggling to keep the lights on."

Brown will face pressure from interest groups to retain mandates, or even create new ones, Gordon predicted. A compromise, he said, could include protections for some.

The governor's intentions are "noble," Gordon said. "I don't know how you quarrel with the idea that funding should be simple and weighted to poverty and English learners. (But) I just don't know how practical it'll be over the long term because of the natural instinct of legislators to create new programs in response to public demands."

Kirst said some of the special programs have been in place since the 1960s and 1970s, and districts now need more flexibility. He also disputed the idea that some schools would lose money to boost funding for others.

"There never was a proposal to take money from schools and give it to other schools," Kirst said. "All schools are to increase in their amounts. They'll just increase differentially."

Still, Buchanan said she's wary of any proposal that fails to lift all school districts to the 2007 level of funding, which is when the state began underfunding schools by suspending Proposition 98 "guarantee" payments.

"Do you take money that some of the high revenue schools get for textbooks and give that to other schools, or do you keep furloughs for some districts while others are giving salary increases?" Buchanan asked. "I don't think the answer is simple, just taking categorical money and redistributing it.

"The system we have is convoluted; it's not something you or I would design today. The problem is we have to go from where we are to a system that's also fair."

The state Department of Finance released estimates last year that showed the Mountain House Elementary District would lose about $3,471 per student from 2013 to 2017 under the old proposal, while the Oakland district would gain nearly the same amount. But H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the department, said in an e-mail that those numbers are "very much outdated" and don't reflect subsequent changes.

Ron Bennett, of School Services of California, which advises school districts on the state budget, said he expects the governor to unveil a "kinder and gentler student formula."

He estimated that the state could give schools $2 billion to $2.5 billion more in the next fiscal year than they received this year. That, he said, would allow the governor to begin phasing in the new funding formula without hurting some schools.

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.


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