Many factors are relevant in determining how much the state should spend to provide a child with an "adequate" public education, but this is not one of them: whether the child lives in an area that was largely agricultural during the early 1970s. Yet agricultural zoning is, to this day, a significant component in the stupefyingly complicated formula that determines California's per-pupil funding. Everyone knows the formula is a mess, but for decades the Legislature did nothing to change it.
Now, taking advantage of an unusual moment in state budget history, Gov. Jerry Brown has sliced through the paralysis and reached a compromise with legislators to create an immeasurably more sensible, comprehensible and fair formula for funding schools. It could well become the great legacy of his administration.
The new, simplified formula is based almost solely on the one factor that should matter: what students need. Under Brown's plan, schools will receive a specified base payment for each student. Because disadvantaged students need more money — for preschool, tutoring, campus security and other expenses — to close the achievement gap, schools will receive 20% more for each student who is either poor enough to qualify for a subsidized school lunch or not fluent in English. There is an additional "concentration" payment for districts in which more than 55% of the students are disadvantaged, which will be of special benefit to the Los Angeles Unified School District. And the state will give local school officials more freedom to decide how the money should be spent, though there will still be a pot of additional funds for special education.