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Op-Ed

Gov. Brown's school reform proposal should get a passing grade

Gov. Jerry Brown's budget aims to give school districts greater flexibility in spending state funds.

January 18, 2012|By Bruce Fuller
  • California Gov. Jerry Brown talks about his budget during a press conference in Sacramento.
California Gov. Jerry Brown talks about his budget during a press conference… (Lezlie Sterling//MCT )

Tucked deep inside Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed 2012-13 budget for California is a little-noticed proposal for the most radical reform of school funding in the state since Proposition 13.

Brown has proposed deregulating some two dozen state programs, including a popular effort to shrink class size in primary classrooms. The deregulation would free up about $7.1 billion in state funds that are currently earmarked for the programs to be used by districts for any educational purpose they see fit, allowing districts far more flexibility to direct funds where they are most needed.

The proposal would also, over five years, create a system in which individual students are funded at different levels, depending on the actual costs of bringing them to proficiency. Districts would be allotted more per student for those with more costly needs, a move likely to shift more dollars to urban systems like the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Michael Kirst, the Brown-appointed president of the state Board of Education, says the governor is aiming "to direct more money to the neediest students and transform a centralized and overregulated finance system."

The budget would still require schools to do more with less, aiming to restore only about $4.9 billion to state school funding, roughly half of what has been cut since 2007. And even that additional funding will be possible only if voters approve a ballot initiative to boost tax revenue by $4.6 billion.

Brown's proposals come at a time when a majority of citizens say they favor modest tax increases for schools, according to polling by the Public Policy Institute of California, but only if existing dollars are spent more effectively with less bureaucracy. The reforms proposed in the budget are a decisive step in that direction.

To shave Sacramento's own bureaucracy, the governor would redirect an additional

$2.6 billion in various funding streams into a block grant incentive program for which districts would be held accountable. This would mean that the state would no longer mandate what districts must spend on such things as textbooks, driver's education, arts and music, shifting that money into the omnibus grants program. The proposal builds on a Republican-led effort in 2009 that collapsed 40 other education programs into a $4.5-billion block grant program.

So what would this mean for a district like L.A. Unified? Currently, about a third of the district's annual funding is tied up in rule-bound programs. Not only does that severely limit the district's ability to direct funds where they're most needed, but, according to the findings of a recent study carried out by UC Berkeley and Stanford, it also requires school principals to spend much of their time completing forms and hosting a stream of compliance officers.

The maze of regulations that binds up school funding today dates to the 19th century, and is now well understood by only a few well-heeled lobbyists. Brown's budget is an attempt at modernization. "We want to keep this as simple, as transparent as possible," said Nick Schweizer, a senior finance advisor to the governor.

The logic behind Brown's proposals is similar to that used to finance healthcare: Public dollars should be allocated according to actual costs. In the case of healthcare, this means that more dollars are directed to patients requiring more expensive treatments. Currently, Sacramento allocates about the same amount of money to educate a bright, upper-middle-class child with highly educated parents living in Pacific Palisades as it does to educate a child struggling to read and living below the poverty line in the inner city. But the costs of bringing those two children to proficiency are very different.

Predictably, the politics are already getting ugly. Rural districts are fighting to retain protected dollars for 4-H clubs. Parents of kids who have been designated "gifted" are fighting for their set-asides. Teacher unions will fight to strictly regulate dollars for smaller classes. And that's nothing compared with the fireworks we'll see when the governor's plan gets to the Legislature.

The proposals, though, are sound. Rather than focus on trying to defeat them, stakeholders should focus on developing a sensible plan for phasing in the new system in a way that doesn't do harm. Growing suburban districts, for example, need to have the ability to raise local taxes more easily to fund schools. Schools that show improvement should be rewarded, and those that don't should be called to account. Otherwise, schools could benefit from attracting, but not serving, weak students — just as doctors are rewarded for treating disease, not for preventing it.

The governor has presented the kind of austere but flexible plan demanded by these lean times, and his strategy could be good for California students. Directing scarce dollars to children who most need support, and untying the hands of local educators to attract stronger teachers and lift achievement, are potent reforms that are long overdue.

Bruce Fuller is a professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley.

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