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Gov. Brown as Robin Hood

His plan to shift money from suburban to urban districts might help disadvantaged students but it could hurt other kids.

April 29, 2013|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • “This is a matter of equity and civil rights,” Gov. Jerry Brown told reporters last week about his plan for school funds. “The question is, do we want to try to take care of the biggest challenge facing California, and that’s the two-tier society?”
“This is a matter of equity and civil rights,” Gov. Jerry Brown… (Renee C. Byer, Associated…)

Now we know what Gov. Jerry Brown really cares about — what gets him riled and raring to rumble.

"The battle of their lives," he promises opponents. "This is a cause."

When a governor bares his soul like that, not only is he waving a nasty stick, he's tacking up a big sign that reads, "Name your price."

Brown's passion: pouring more tax money into inner-city schools at the expense of the suburbs.

It's not that simple, of course. Nothing about California school finance is.

Not all urban districts would benefit from Brown's school funding redistribution scheme. Oakland Unified, for example. Brown's hometown, where he was mayor, would get shortchanged.

Oakland's schools would receive $228 less per pupil under his plan when fully implemented than under the current funding formula, according to the state education department. The governor's own budget office also shows Oakland as a loser.

So the governor might want to tweak his proposal to eliminate at least one unintended consequence.

Brown's plan would allot significantly more money for districts with large percentages of poor children — those eligible for subsidized lunches — and English learners. But that would mean less than otherwise for middle-class and better-off districts where the vast majority of kids speak English at home.

Among the 50 largest districts, more than half would be losers under Brown's plan, based on education department calculations.

Winners would include Los Angeles Unified, Compton, Fontana, Garden Grove, Long Beach, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Ana, Bakersfield and Stockton.

These districts would be losers: Anaheim, Capistrano, Chino, Chula Vista, Glendale, Irvine, Montebello, Mt. Diablo, Placentia-Yorba Linda, Pomona, Poway, Saddleback, San Jose, San Ramon Valley, Temecula and Torrance.

In the capital, Sacramento City Unified would be a winner. But in the adjacent 'burbs, Elk Grove and San Juan would be losers.

It's like robbing Peter to pay Paul, with the robber fancying himself as a Robin Hood.

"This is a matter of equity and civil rights," Brown told reporters last week. "Whatever we have to bring to bear in this battle, we're bringing it. So you can write that down in your notepads. I am going to fight as hard as I can….

"The question is, do we want to try to take care of the biggest challenge facing California, and that's the two-tier society?"

Problem is, most schools were hit hard by Sacramento budget-cutting during the recession, their funding whacked by more than 20%. Class sizes grew. Counselors and librarians were fired. Art and music suffered.

Because of unanticipated income tax receipts, the state may be generating an extra $4 billion for schools this year. But that wouldn't come close to healing their recession wounds. And Brown's plan would make the road to recovery much longer for many.

"A lot of districts will be hard-pressed to get back to 2007-08 spending levels and are concerned we could go into another recession before they do," says Mike Ricketts, a longtime education numbers cruncher who is with School Services of California, a consulting firm. "Everybody has gotten hurt and we need to do something that starts to fix things for everyone."

For years, California has ranked near the bottom nationally in per-pupil spending. Under Brown's plan, Ricketts says, "Some schools would move up to 46th and some would fall to 50th. Are any appropriately funded?

"But the governor says he's not going to talk about that. He's going to talk about civil rights."

Under Brown's plan, the poor kids and English strugglers would get at least an extra 35% in funding. Some would receive up to 70% more if their district had a heavy concentration of disadvantaged students.

Critics contend this is a two-tiered system in itself. Disadvantaged is disadvantaged, they argue. Why should some disadvantaged students get more funding than others just because they're more concentrated?

The governor tried to answer that at his news conference.

"You can have a small pocket of poverty in the middle of an affluent district," he said. "That's very different than widespread despair and hopelessness that often shows up in these areas of … concentrated poverty."

Many legislators are skeptical.

"It's not clear that there's a need for a concentration grant," says Assembly Education Chairwoman Joan Buchanan (D-Alamo), a former board member of a middle-class Bay Area district.

Senate Democrats last week offered a scaled-down version of Brown's plan, eliminating the concentration bonus. Their proposal also sought to guarantee that any extra funding targeted at disadvantaged students would actually be spent on educating those kids, not siphoned into some other kitty.

An agitated governor called his news conference the next day.

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