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Spread the wealth

Facing a budget crunch, it's time California brings some fairness to its spending on schools.

May 05, 2008

The Los Angeles Unified School District gets $10,402 per student each year, and has to stretch that state money in order to pay for its many programs. If that sounds tough, imagine what it's like next door in Inglewood, where, despite similar demographics and similar challenges, the school district receives $1,400 less for each student.

More affluent schools have their disparities too. Beverly Hills schools get $2,200 more per student than those in Manhattan Beach. And in Orange County, the Laguna Beach schools, with revenues of $13,367 per student, can far and away outspend neighboring Capistrano Unified, with $7,942 per student.

Of course, this all pales in comparison with the tiny McKittrick Elementary School District in Kern County. There, officials rake in $33,325 per student -- well more than three times the statewide average of $9,061.

California's spending on schools isn't lavish in the best of times, and this year's collapsing budget threatens to punch holes in education. But the state only makes things worse with cockeyed funding formulas.

The unique lunacy of school revenue dates back to 1978 and the aftermath of Proposition 13, when the Legislature shifted the funding of education from local districts to the state. You'd think that with the money distributed from a common pool, spending would be level from one district to another. Instead, the state applied a variety of complicated formulas, some of which made sense at the time, others not.

Funding was adjusted depending on the value of land. Some needy districts got extra for meals, and schools where property tax revenue was so rich that it brought in more than the state would otherwise provide got to keep that money -- thus the 87 "basic aid" districts like Laguna Beach and McKittrick. (Even though McKittrick is far from an affluent area, property taxes from oil fields bring in barrels of cash.) The list goes on.

But many formerly agricultural areas are now being built out. The federal government took over meals, but the state funding didn't stop -- and could be used by schools for just about anything. Neighborhoods that once were made up largely of middle-class families now have large numbers of impoverished students.

The state's budget troubles provide an opportunity for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to overhaul this inequitable system. Schools should get a base amount per student, with money added for special needs, whether to cover the high cost of living or the high numbers of students who can't speak English. The funding might never be enough, but at least it should be spread more fairly.

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