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ORANGE COUNTY COMMENTARY

There Are Better Ways to Fund California Schools

September 21, 2003|James A. Fleming | James A. Fleming is superintendent of the Capistrano Unified School District.

The lunacy of California's approach to funding schools hit me during a conversation with a man whose wife had just died. In the midst of his grief, he apologized for having kept his son from school to attend the mother's funeral and offered to write the district I manage, the Capistrano Unified School District, a $40 check for the funds that we lost for not having the boy in class.

Of course I declined his offer, but realized how bizarre it is that schools should be punished by the state for a child's absence for legitimate reasons.

The state needs to reform its methods of financing based on enrollment, allocation per student and type of district. I am not necessarily talking about more money, but rather about more logical and efficient mechanisms to distribute existing dollars fairly.

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Funding Based on Enrollment

In most states, districts report their enrollment to state officials one month after the school year has begun. Each district is then assigned funding according to student enrollment.

In February, states double-check the enrollment count for each district and make adjustments depending on whether the number of enrolled students has increased or decreased.

Not in California, however. Our officials use a 19th century system in which they identify the number of students actually in attendance each day and allocate funding based on each day's enrollment. If a student misses one day, the district loses 1/180th of the child's allocation for the year. If a student is absent -- for any reason whatsoever -- for nine days out of 180, the district is penalized 5% of the annual funds that would otherwise be allocated for the student.

This system creates a nightmare of daily attendance checks, keeping an army of bureaucrats busy reporting day-by-day funding for 997 school districts. Not only does this system drain money from educational programs for children, it is grossly illogical. When a child is absent from school, more work is created for the teacher, not less. The teacher must provide make-up work and bring the student up-to-date on lessons missed. Yet the state's methodology reduces a district's funding.

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Equalization

Most states make a general determination of how much of a child's schooling they will fund, say $6,000 per year per student. The figure is then adjusted according to criteria, such as paying more for students in urban areas or for special-education children.

In California public schools, it works differently. The basic level of funding comes from a 30-year-old formula devised when the state assumed direct control for funding all schools.

Rather than determine a basic statewide figure and then adjust it depending on unique needs, the state used a complicated formula based on the level of local taxation at the time, ending up with a different amount per student for each district. Like snowflakes, no two districts were exactly the same. Even today, each Orange County school district has a different base level of per-student funding.

When I talk to parents in Capistrano Unified, they laugh when I tell them we are considered a "low-wealth" district. But I then ask, "How many people in the audience lived in the CUSD area in the early 1970s?" On average, maybe 10 of 100 people will raise their hands. Naturally, at that time the South County region of cattle ranches and citrus groves had low levels of taxation because there were hardly any people or schools.

California needs to discard the present system, which is based on the accident of history or geography. A new plan should begin with the premise that all students in the state are of equal value, then adjust funding to special circumstances.

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Unified District Funding Penalty

In California, some school districts enroll elementary students only, others include only high schools, and many, such as Capistrano Unified, are organized K-12.

I believe the unified K-12 model makes the most sense because children experience a consistent approach to standards, philosophies, teaching methods and testing through high school graduation.

The state, understandably, funds elementary districts, secondary districts and unified districts at different average amounts since secondary students are more expensive to educate. But at present, the funding disparities are out of kilter.

An average elementary district receives $193 less per student than the average unified district, but an average unified district receives $746 less per student than an average secondary district. If Capistrano's elementary and secondary students were to be funded at these averages, my district would have an additional $7 million.

California has adopted a policy position that an optimum school district is a K-12 configuration. The draft revision of the California Master Plan for Education embraces this idea. There is no reason why the state should not immediately provide a funding incentive for unified districts and eliminate the existing disincentive.

California's funding of education devolves too much from a patchwork of political expediency, short-term compromises and outdated assumptions. The governor and Legislature need to honestly address the inequities, irrationalities and inconsistencies in the current system.

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