Probably the most important school debate in decades is unfolding in Sacramento, and for once it has nothing to do with fill-in-the-bubble tests or the phonics versus whole language reading battle. It's about the money: How much cash goes to which public schools and for what reasons? Gov. Jerry Brown is cutting through years of legislative torpor with his proposal to simplify the unwieldy and often unfair formula that determines how schools get funded and to provide extra funds to those students who need it most. The concept is spot on, but in this case the details matter too. Rather than simply defending his formula, which has its weak spots, Brown should be listening to those with valid criticisms and modifying his proposal accordingly.
For four decades, California has used a school funding formula that could justifiably be called lunatic. It gives differing amounts of money per student to each school district, based not on need or real costs but on such anachronistic factors as whether the district was located in a largely agricultural area in the early 1970s, when the formula was devised. These days, its quirks mean that one district might get as much as $800 less per student than its neighbor, even if the student demographics are virtually identical.
On top of that, numerous "categorical" programs provide extra money but dictate how it may be spent ? on anti-tobacco lessons, for instance, or smaller class sizes for the youngest students.
With the dramatic cutbacks over the last five years, and the passage of Proposition 30 last year ? which brings some money back into the system ? Brown sees an opportunity to press the restart button on school funding. He proposes to simplify the formula and to eliminate many of the categorical programs, handing many spending decisions back to the districts. At the same time, he wants to give a big boost to districts with poor students.
Brown's formula would give all districts in the state an equal per-student base grant. It would then give districts an additional 35% for each "high need" student, defined as poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized school lunches or not fluent in English. In districts where more than half the students are disadvantaged, it would also provide an additional "concentration" grant. Districts would be required to use the extra money primarily for the benefit of the disadvantaged students.
This is the way to fund schools: simple, transparent and cognizant of the fact that disadvantaged students ? who make up 60% of the public school population ? are more expensive to educate, through no fault of their own. Every student in the state must have a safe place to attend school, and the schools of low-income students are more likely to be located in dangerous neighborhoods. Preschool, summer school, after-school programs and extra tutoring can help make up for a lack of parental education and enrichment opportunities at home. Few would deny that schools with large numbers of low-income children need more money.
But here's the problem: Whereas districts with large numbers of disadvantaged students would see their funding rise steeply year by year, others would see only small increases. By 2018, when the new plan would be fully rolled out, many working-class and middle-class school districts would receive about $2,000 less per student than districts next door with large numbers of students who are impoverished or not yet fluent in English.
That would be no problem if all schools had adequate funding to carry out programs that should be seen as basic, but they don't. California is 49th in the nation in per-pupil education funding when adjusted for the cost of living. Starting in the fall of 2008, when education funding dropped abruptly, an estimated half of the state's school districts cut their instructional years by as much as 10 days; in fact, the state had to pass a special law to allow the shortened school year. Teachers were furloughed without pay, arts education shrank and class sizes increased.
Although no school district would be worse off next year under Brown's plan than it was last year, those that don't receive the large supplemental grants for their high-needs students won't be appreciably better off either, at least for many years, and might fall further and further behind.
Yet even among students who don't fit the federal definition of disadvantaged, many are far from financially secure or comfortable. The income cutoff for receiving subsidized lunches is about $42,000 for a family of four. A district filled with families earning above $42,000 but below $75,000 would probably face a lot of the same problems as a district with more families earning under $42,000, but it would receive no extra money as it struggled to catch up to former funding levels. Even by the 2019-20 school year, hundreds of these moderate- to middle-income school districts would still be far short of where they were in 2007-08, according to Ron Bennett, chief executive of School Services of California, a school consulting firm that opposes the plan.
So what's the solution? Giving money to those districts that need it most is both fair and necessary. But providing a basic, adequate education to all students is also nonnegotiable.
Bennett and some legislators have suggested that it makes more sense to let all school districts catch back up to the 2007-08 funding levels ? when the state was still only 46th in per-pupil spending when adjusted for the cost of living ? before implementing the governor's proposals. Bennett says that would take two to three years. That's not an unreasonable compromise, although maybe the delay doesn't have to be quite that long.
We stand behind Brown's commitment to a saner, simpler school funding plan that gives a serious boost to disadvantaged students, but he should be working with the Legislature on refining his plan and making it more flexible so that all students are assured of the basics they need for a decent education for years to come.