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School Funding Reform Stalled

Education: Effort to equalize allocations for California students is mired in budget dispute. Backers fear the cost may be prohibitive.


State lawmakers could change the way California funds public schools, and that has some districts perking up their ears.

A measure under consideration in Sacramento would make basic per-student funding more uniform among the state's nearly 1,000 school districts by adding $406 million into the equation next year. It's called "equalization," and many districts have been clamoring for it for decades.

The way public schools now are funded "is the most serious inequity that exists in the California education system," said James A. Fleming, superintendent of the Capistrano Unified School District, which gets about $50 less than the state average for each of its 47,000 students. Under the new proposal, the district could receive an extra $86 per student.

The giant 735,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District could collect almost $29 million, or about $40 more per student. The tiny La Grange Elementary School District in Stanislaus County, which has seven students, could get an extra $120 per student.

Basic per-student funding now varies widely from as low as $4,400 per student at Los Angeles County's Walnut Valley Unified District to a high of $6,600 at Sierra Unified School District in Fresno County.

Districts that already get more money--Sierra, Beverly Hills Unified and about 160 others--would not get an increase. However, none would get less than it does now.

But nothing is simple when it comes to state budgets and school funding. Although there is little opposition to equalizing basic funding for California students in principle, Assembly Bill 3003 is part of the overall budget package.

And that is mired in the Assembly, with Republicans and Democrats disputing how best to plug a predicted $23.6-billion state deficit for this year.

Republicans have championed the equalization bill, but oppose a plan by Democrats to raise nearly $4 billion in new taxes and revenues to help balance the state's books.

Democrats also support equalization, but they say it is the whole package or no deal. Gov. Gray Davis then must agree to sign it.

Annual education budgets are tied to how much money the state has and how much schools received the previous year. And this year's budget is a work in progress. Since AB 3003 wouldn't kick in until the following fiscal year, it's also unclear what effect earmarking so hefty a sum for equalizing school funding would have on other programs, which could receive less money.

"There is a fixed pot of money,'' said Teri Burns, deputy superintendent of government affairs for the state Department of Education. "If they take $406 million from something for equalization, whatever that something is is the loser."

Which has left some districts feeling lukewarm about the bill.

"If equalization was out there alone, we would support this bill," said Joseph Zeronian, Los Angeles Unified's chief financial officer. "But it is up against a number of other things."

In general, students in affluent suburban communities tend to benefit more from it than urban or poor districts, partly because the latter receive more supplemental funding aimed at aiding disadvantaged students.

Equalization does not mean every student would get a universal rate of funding from the state. On top of basic per-student funding, districts also get subsidies for specific programs.

Overcrowded districts, for example, benefit from money for class-size reduction. Rural districts receive more funding for transportation needs.

Fleming and other equalization proponents say they don't begrudge such subsidies, but they want a level playing field when it comes to essential funding for materials and teachers' salaries.

"We could get an extra $2.5 to $3 million" under AB 3003, said Vernon Medeiros, chief financial officer of the Irvine Unified School District, which this year was forced to cut arts and music programs for lack of funds. "We could do a lot with that money."

"The state has to make a policy decision that a child in Beverly Hills is worth the same as a child in Capistrano, the same as a child in Compton, the same as a child in Sacramento," Fleming said.

The reason California's children are "worth" different amounts of education dollars is the result of decades of court cases, measures and legislation that have produced one of the most convoluted school funding mechanisms in the nation.

In 1971, the state Supreme Court concluded that funding schools with local property taxes was unfair because it put poor communities with lower property values at a disadvantage.

The court did not mandate an equal amount of funding for every student, but did force richer districts to share their wealth.

Districts in affluent communities such as San Juan Capistrano and Irvine must share part of their property tax wealth, but have little or no ability to raise taxes because of Proposition 13, the 1978 voter-approved measure that virtually capped property taxes.

"That is grossly unfair," Fleming said. "We are tied to property revenue from almost 30 years ago."

The state has funded some equalization in the past, including $40 million last year, and the same amount is likely to pass this year in a measure separate from the reform bill. AB 3003 would bring all districts within 92% of the highest paid district, the narrowest gap yet.

However, amid the squabbling over the state budget, even ardent proponents worry that the timing isn't right. "As passionate as I feel about this issue," Fleming said, "I certainly hope it doesn't become a deal-breaker that upsets the entire budget. The equalization battle we can fight anytime."

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