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A System Rigged for the Wealthy

November 05, 2000|David Friedman | David Friedman, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a Markle senior fellow at New America Foundation

Over the past several weeks, a shadowy state agency has convened under court order to fix a school construction-funding scheme flagrantly biased against California's most overcrowded, poor urban districts. That it took a civil rights lawsuit to force the State Allocation Board to reform is appalling enough. Even more disturbing, the growing conflict between wealthy and inner-city districts may preclude a just remedy.

At the root of the problem is the board's practice of handing out school-construction money, including the $3 billion that voters authorized in approving Proposition 1A in 1998, on a first-come, first-served basis. Each of California's 1,000 school districts must complete a detailed application process, including architectural and construction planning and extensive environmental review of proposed sites. Districts that fill out the forms fastest, not those with the greatest demonstrable need for new facilities, overwhelmingly get the money.

Accordingly, inner-city districts, where students are crammed into year-round facilities with broken toilets and playgrounds buried beneath portable classrooms, receive little support. Richer districts serving suburban and exurban regions--communities expanding into largely rural, open spaces--pocket funds for Olympic-sized pools, band-practice rooms and manicured soccer fields.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, contains 12% of the state's K-12 student body. One-third of its mostly inner-city pupils receive substandard, multitrack year-round instruction. Yet, under the SAB's formula, the district would be paid just 1% of all Proposition 1A funds. Facing certain depletion of this money, a coalition of LAUSD students challenged the constitutionality of the board's approach. Last August, a court ruled that, before trial in early 2001, the board had to follow its own priority-points system and address need, not just speed, in its funding decisions. Despite the students' legal victory, behind-the-scenes politics threatens real progress.

California's inequitable school-funding process is another example of what happens when crucial social decisions are made by little-known agencies subject to virtually no scrutiny. The rules and regulations of these insider-dominated bureaucracies can be strikingly inequitable yet almost impossible to change.

The very heart of the SAB's approach reflects this problem. Even if it employs its priority-points system, its formula is inherently skewed in favor of richer communities. As evidence of "need," exurban districts are allowed to inflate their funding-priority scores by counting the number of future "students," often derived from nothing more than a developer's tentative tract map on vacant parcels.

This is a huge blow to urban districts. Compared with the tangible facility shortages plaguing inner-city schools, construction requirements derived from tentative tract maps are highly speculative. Many proposed projects are never built because of changing funding, regulatory or market circumstances. Years can pass before ground is broken, and by the time construction begins, the size and scope of most developments frequently differs from what was first proposed.

Incredibly, the SAB's funding formula weighs an exurban district's "ghost" pupil requirements almost as heavily as an urban district's actual facility shortfalls. In others words, the 77,000 students for which the LAUSD now lacks two-semester classroom capacity compete for construction money with "phantom" children on vacant fields.

Procedural politics explains this result. As a 1998 California Research Bureau study noted, the SAB, like most bureaucratic entities, is profoundly influenced by special-interest pressure. Wealthier school districts have far more resources and direct political connections to lobby for rules that favor them. SAB staff, moreover, has considerable discretion to delay or otherwise compromise any district's funding application. Poorer, disadvantaged communities can ill afford to openly challenge even its most onerous practices.

SAB rules also make no allowance for the fact that the state's environmental review process delays even the most diligent urban district's applications. No district can get in the school-funding queue until the state Department of Education certifies a potential school site. A site can't be certified until all environmental studies are complete. The trouble is, California is among the small minority of states refusing to establish cleanup criteria for previously used urban land.

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