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A new tack on funding California's schools

Gov. Brown is on the right path with a more logical, needs-based plan, but accountability is lacking.

June 18, 2012
  • Kindergarten students are seen at the Bennett-Kew Elementary School in Inglewood. The Inglewood Unified School District receives about $1,200 less per student annually than Los Angeles Unified.
Kindergarten students are seen at the Bennett-Kew Elementary School in… (Los Angeles Times )

Wouldn't it make sense for education funding in California to be transparent and equitable, with money spent according to students' varying needs? Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing to inject some overdue clarity and logic into the process by allocating to schools a flat amount per pupil, plus a large additional sum for low-income students or those who aren't fluent in English.

The governor's plan is far from perfect — it's especially lacking in accountability — and the Legislature appears unwilling to support it this year for reasons both political and philosophical. But the reasoning behind it is sound, and legislators should work with the governor to move the state in this direction in coming years.

California's system for allocating public school dollars — if it can be called a system, which implies that there's an organizing principle behind it — has needed an overhaul for decades. Only a handful of people in the state claim to understand how it works. Some school districts receive more money for each student than others, even when living costs and student characteristics are roughly the same. The Inglewood Unified School District receives about $1,200 less per student annually than Los Angeles Unified, for example, although the two have almost identical demographics and educational challenges. Some affluent districts get far more than the statewide average; others receive less.

Funding should correspond to need. It takes extra money to compensate for the disadvantages that students face when they're poor or don't speak fluent English, to pay for supplemental programs and to attract good teachers. This has been the elephant in the schoolroom: If the state is going to get serious about narrowing the achievement gap between the haves and the have-nots, it has to provide more funding to the latter group. The governor would give 20% more for each student who fits in one or both of these categories, and up to 40% more when school districts have large concentrations of such students, phasing in the new funding over six years. He also would give school districts more freedom over how they spend their money.

The funding scheme will not go into effect, though, if the governor's tax measure is rejected by voters in November, and that's part of why many legislators haven't been avid supporters of the new formula. Democrats see the tax measure as the top priority right now; without it, almost every school in California would face terrible cutbacks. The governor's proposal is politically risky; middle-class voters might look askance at the new funding formula if their lower-income neighbors were getting the lion's share of it. Schools in Tustin, for example, would receive about $2,350 less per student than those in adjacent Santa Ana by 2018-19, according to figures provided by the state Department of Finance. Right now, they're only a few hundred dollars apart.

Brown's proposal has problems beyond political expediency. His formula gives school districts an incentive to keep students who aren't fluent in English from being reclassified as fluent; they would lose money by succeeding with these students. And the proposal might short school districts where the overall percentage of disadvantaged students is relatively low but where there are concentrated pockets of such students in individual schools.

More important, Brown's proposal fails to give taxpayers adequate assurances that the additional money would be well spent. A major reason why the No Child Left Behind Act passed a decade ago was that federal Title I money for low-income schools seldom seemed to make a difference for disadvantaged students; by demanding better accountability, Congress sought to ensure that taxpayers would get their money's worth. There should be consequences for schools that receive thousands of extra dollars per student annually yet have little to show for it. Brown has talked about creating new school accountability systems, but he has yet to reveal what they might be or how they would be tied to this funding. As much as we would like to see California move to a needs-based formula, Brown cannot expect the state to embrace a new funding scheme without that important piece of the puzzle. It is true that many California schools are in dire need of money, but it's just as true that money alone does not make schools good.

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