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Voters weren't told about plan to redistribute education money

Gov. Jerry Brown wants to use Prop. 30 tax revenues to help poorer students. It's a laudable goal but shouldn't come at the expense of more prosperous school districts.

February 27, 2013|George Skelton | Capitol Journal

SACRAMENTO — A revenue redistribution scheme probably was not what Californians had in mind when they passed Gov. Jerry Brown's tax increase to salvage public schools.

But as it turns out, the tax hike, Prop. 30, was essential to help pay for the governor's plan to redistribute state education money — sending more to mostly inner-city schools at the expense of suburban districts.

Brown's proposal wouldn't work without Prop. 30. But voters weren't told about that during the election campaign.

The governor wasn't quoting Aristotle, as he did later after Prop. 30 passed comfortably in November.

"Our future depends on … disproportionately funding those schools that have disproportionate challenges," Brown told reporters in January while unveiling a new budget proposal that contained his redistribution plan for school money.

"Aristotle said treating unequals equally is not justice."

And two weeks later during his State of the State address, Brown put it this way: "A child in a family making $20,000 a year or speaking a language different from English or living in a foster home requires more help. Equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice."

Brown certainly has a good point: Poor children and kids who struggle with English deserve extra help. And that usually means more money.

But it shouldn't come at the expense of more advantaged children — middle- and upper-class kids — who also must fulfill their potential if California is to be competitive economically in the 21st century. Most of their schools were hit hard during the recession, many losing counselors, librarians, art and music while class sizes grew.

What's needed is a larger pie — along with some vital reforms that aren't even being discussed — not a redistribution of the current pie, which amounts to practically the lowest per-pupil funding in the nation.

But none of that was part of the Prop. 30 debate.

That tax increase, first and foremost, was aimed at avoiding $5.4 billion in additional whacks at K-12 schools and community colleges, plus $500 million in cuts at the public universities. And Prop. 30 did do that.

But there wasn't any talk about dramatically changing the way the state distributes school aid. Voters didn't hear about robbing Peter in the suburbs to pay Paul in the city.

The promise was to "restore funding for our schools." And voters were assured that "Sacramento politicians can't touch the money."

Well, maybe the governor. And, of course, the legislators.

Brown wants the Legislature to rewrite the school funding law so that spending on poor children — those eligible for subsidized lunches — and English learners grows much faster than for other students.

But the extra money for the disadvantaged students would come out of the state's total education pot, leaving less for the rest.

It's all highly complicated, both the funding and the language of education.

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

"I think parents who voted for Prop. 30 were expecting money to be restored equitably with everyone brought up to the same level," complains Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Joan Buchanan (D-Alamo), a former school board member in the San Francisco Bay Area.

"People in my community didn't expect one district to get $2 or $3 and another $8. Prop. 30 was great. It meant we weren't going to have to make more cuts. But it didn't restore schools to their pre-recession levels. And people definitely were not voting to have an inequitable distribution of the funds."

On the other side of the Capitol, in the Senate, Education Committee Chairwoman Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge) is more positive about Brown's plan, but still not sold.

"I'm going to try to get there with him," the former teacher says. "But no guarantees."

"At least the governor put something on the table that is pretty serious," she continues. "It's provocative. This will take some time to discuss."

The Brown administration last week released a long spreadsheet specifying how much money each district would receive under the governor's plan. But it didn't include side-by-side data showing what districts would get under the current formula.

"We should have all the details, not just the numbers they want to provide," asserts Buchanan, who adds that she'll insist on the comparisons before her committee votes.

Brown officials contend that no district would be a loser because none would receive less money than currently. They say it with a straight face. But even the governor — by quoting Aristotle — admits that some schools would be much bigger winners than others.

That's shown in the spreadsheet. Los Angeles and Baldwin Park unified districts would be big winners; Arcadia and Burbank unifieds, not so much.

Two nonpartisan research outfits — the Legislative Analyst's Office and the Public Policy Institute of California — released reports last week tentatively embracing Brown's plan with qualifications. They urged some tweaking.

The governor has a nice-sounding name for his plan: "Local Control Funding Formula." He can affix that tag because Sacramento would eliminate spending strings attached to most so-called categorical programs, such as career tech and summer school.

Brown insisted on voters signing off on his tax increase. That was an abdication of power. To be consistent, he also should have allowed voters to decide exactly how the tax money was to be spent.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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