Brownley to push for finance reform

Brown, too, backs weighted student concept
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As bleak as it looks for school funding this year, the stars may actually be aligning for school funding reform.

Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, is betting that this year the Legislature will pass a more equitable and simpler method for funding K-12 schools. And she and Gov. Jerry Brown agree, at least in principle, on what it would look like: a uniform per-student funding formula with extra dollars for low-income children and English learners.

Brownley is sponsoring an open-ended bill, AB 18; the first hearing on it will be March 23.

Current funding formulas are opaque and unfair. Funding varies by districts, based in part on funding levels set 30 years ago for reasons no longer defensible. Disparities are compounded by differences districts receive in categorical funding  – money allotted for specific programs. “Our current system is complicated, convoluted, and not designed toward meeting our goal of ending  the achievement gap,” Brownley told me last week.

A weighted student formula, created by blending together many categorical programs and then allocating extra dollars based on student needs, would be cleaner and clearer. Brown endorsed the idea as part of his campaign platform. But, of course, it’s the details that matter: Should regional costs of living be considered? Should low-income students be given 10 percent or 20 percent more? How do you ensure that the extra money is spent on those children?

It will be a few years before a new formula takes effect, even if there is agreement on it. Brownley and others agree that districts wouldn’t receive any less than they currently get now. New money will be needed in order for the formula to work.

Two years ago, Brownley, a Democrat from Santa Monica, thought she was making progress toward the goal, when the Legislature (with rare large bipartisan majorities) passed her bill, setting up a broadly based study group on finance reform. It would have based its work on conclusions of Getting Down To Facts, a series of Stanford-coordinated studies from 2007, and recommendations in 2008 of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Advisory Committee on Education Excellence, which endorsed the weighted student concept. But Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed Brownley’s bill and, in one of his more baffling veto messages, dismissed the study group as creating “the appearance of activity without actually translating to achievement.” This was odd, considering it was Schwarzenegger  who made it clear he didn’t want anything to do with financing reform that could cost the state more money.

So this year, Brownley is not resurrecting the idea of a working group and instead is cutting to the chase, with hopes that she’ll have a bill passed and signed by the end of the year. She said she planned to confer with Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst, who, with two others, created his own version  of a weighted student formula.

8 Comments

  1. Your sixth paragraph tells the tale about the prospects for school finance reform, John.
    “It will be a few years before a new formula takes effect, even if there is agreement on it. Brownley and others agree that districts wouldn’t receive any less than they currently get now. New money will be needed in order for the formula to work.”
    As a recent PPIC report made clear, a couple of generations of young people will pass through our schools before weighted student funding has its intended impact on the distribution of funds to schools and students, and the PPIC analysis was conducted before school districts had felt the full effects of the fiscal crisis.  Now districts will almost certainly demand that the “new money” needed to implement weighted student funding must come after the “old money” needed to restore past funding levels.  It’s possible that weighted student funding will produce a more equitable and effective funding distribution, but only in the very long run.  For more see this post at Conditions of Education in Californiahttp://www.stanford.edu/group/pace/cgi-bin/drupal/node/139.

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  2. Bill Ouchi at UCLA solidly made the case for WSF about eight years ago and showed how it is both equitable and utilitarian. Lets see if the political class has the steel to actually implement it; I’m betting they do not.  WSF if fairly done supplies a market mechanism that alllocates money where it is needed, a rare bird in the empire of public education. Ouchi has some other spot-on ideas for schools that we all would be prudent to investigate.

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  3. David’s response identifies the key issue – and the one that has been the sticking point for weighted student formula (WSF) discussions for years –  the idea that school districts must be “held harmless” and WSF can only be implemented using “new money.”    In fact, David suggests that many education advocates will argue that school districts will insist on being restored to the level of funding they received before the current round of cuts before any funding is considered to be “new.”   This argument has a certain logic to it, but it also has two fundamental problems.  It delays implementation of weighted student formula for years, perhaps for many years.   This should be hard to stomach for the many who believe that the over-regulation of public education via the current blizzard of categorical programs is a serious problem, and that WSF is the only viable solution.   Second, it may not be necessary: in the eyes of the principals we’ve surveyed in our SSFR project — implementing a verson of weighted student formula within three urban school districts — substantially more flexibility with regard to how money is spent is a reasonable trade-off for less money.  Of course, as John points out, the devil is in the details, and there are many of them.  But if WSF is a good idea, reformers should not be willing to wait.  

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  4. “Current funding formulas are opaque and unfair. Funding varies by districts, based in part on funding levels set 30 years ago for reasons no longer defensible.”

    Compare that to the fairness of the share of property taxes that people pay that go to schools from the 1% rate set by Prop 13. While the consequences of the assessment provision of 13 to fairness are well-known, the wide variation, set by the legislature 30 years ago, in the amount of the 1% rate property taxes that go to schools varies considerably depending on where you live isn’t known to many. This part of the property taxes is a component of the Revenue Limit funding of schools in most districts and is therefore, in effect, a state school property tax. Compounding the assessment provisions of Prop 13 with the variation in how much goes to the state, you can get inequities that can dwarf those in Kozol’s “Savage Inequalities.” Remember that old book, when the issue was about poor children actually getting way less funding. How nostalgic!

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  5. I am in full support of WSF but, despite the annoying — and often exaggerated — funding inequalities, I still don’t believe our big issue is that inequality. Our big issues still are ineffective and wasteful spending, worthless fuzzy curricula, and lack of teacher content knowledge.
     
    And, since the highly emotional “savage inequalities” was brought into this discussion, I suggest to read the Education Next article on this issue. It is, mostly, not about money but about bad use of it.
     
    Until we internalize this, we will keep using it as an excuse for our failures.

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  6. To that I’ll reference a paper from the aforementioned ‘Getting Down To Facts’ project: “Assessing the Costs of K-12 Education in California Public Schools” by Jennifer Imazeki. http://irepp.stanford.edu/documents/GDF/SUMMARIES/Imazeki.pdf
     

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  7. We’ve had weighted student funding in California’s chartered schools sector for over a decade.  It starts with a General-Purpose Grant that is based on the statewide average general-purpose funding for school districts.  To this, the state adds a Categorical Block Grant that provides a uniform, per ADA amount in lieu of many state categorical programs.  This Block Grant is supplemented with a uniform formula amount based on the number and proportion of English learner and economically-disadvantaged (poverty income) students served.
    Presto–a school finance system in a paragraph.  Imagine all the unemployed school finance consultants, lawyers, and bean-counting bureaucrats.  Perhaps we could find real work for them educating kids.
    Of course, nothing is this simple in California.  We still need to work on a uniform, per-student facilities funding formula as well as return to a more needs-based special education funding system, but we’re nearly 90 percent of the way there in the charter sector.
    Instead of introducing yet another slate of anti-charter bills, Brownley should visit a few charter schools.  She might learn a few valuable lessons.

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  8. Imazaki concludes that the marginal cost of having all students meet API goals is $1.7 billion to $1.5 TRILLION — a disparity of nearly 1000 times. Any study that can’t do better than this is, from a policy perspective, hardly worth the paper it’s written on.  If, in Imazaki’s words, “Current variations in per-pupil spending in California school districts are not strongly connected to the cost of education” how can one develop models which assume such a relationship exists?  If money were all that mattered, the  kids of Washington, D.C., with the highest level of per-pupil spending in the nation, would all be geniuses. All Imazaki’s study shows is (1) the subjectivity of the definition of “adequacy”; (2) the sorry state of knowledge about the education production function and (3)  the futility of applying high-falutin’ statistical models to estimate the parameters of an unknown function.

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