Assembly: Yes, fix school funding

Brownley's AB 18 gets strong support, for now
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A bill that would become the foundation for restructuring the state’s K-12 funding system passed the Assembly this week with near unanimity (a vote of 74-2) – a sign that legislators agree with the concept and are willing to let important details be worked out in coming months.

AB 18, sponsored by Julia Brownley, a Santa Monica Democrat who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, would begin to fix a system that study after study has concluded is complex, confusing, irrational, and, by ignoring the high cost of educating the poor and English learners, inequitable.

It is also underfunded, although the bill itself neither provides additional funding overall nor explicitly calls for it. It would, however, put in place what Brownley calls “the architecture” for the Legislature to shift priorities to students in need, when more money under Proposition 98 becomes available in coming years.

It also would make divvying up of education dollars more transparent and efficient by giving school districts control over billions of dollars whose uses have been dictated by Sacramento through dozens of categorical grants; they comprise about a third of school spending.

In exchange for whacking their budgets, the Legislature already has given districts flexibility over some categorical money. AB 18 would accelerate the process and make flexibility permanent.

Goal: Weighted student formula for poor children

Starting in 2015-16, Prop 98 would go into three piles of money based on student enrollment, with special education walled off into a separate pot.

  • Base or general spending, the current revenue limit funding, the largest of the three. Folded into this would be about two dozen categorical programs, worth $2.4 billion, including home-to-school transportation, community day schools, civic education, gifted and talented programs, arts and music programs, and much of adult education.
  • Targeted Student Equity Funding, with about eight programs now aimed at poor students and English learners, including Economic Impact Aid, the largest. Totaling $2.1 billion, this would be the basis for a much talked about weighted student formula, the extra per-student funding for children in need that the Legislature could make its top funding priority in coming years.  Gov. Schwarzenegger’s bipartisan Committee on Education Excellence estimated that adequately funding low-income students, many of whom are English learners, would require an extra 20 percent per student. Assembly Education Committee staff haven’t yet determined if the Targeted Student Equity figure, as now funded, comes close to the 20 percent weight; however, it probably comes up  short.
  • Quality Instruction Funding, combining the popular class-size reduction program and eight other categorical programs, now funded at $1.8 billion, including teacher mentoring and training programs. It could be used for teacher recruitment and retention programs, teacher training, and, assuming districts become bolder, paying for more comprehensive teacher and principal evaluations, or smaller classes, however districts define them. (It’s not clear to me why class-size reduction – a favorite of the California Teachers Association – was thrown into this pile.)

To prevent a food fight among potential winners and losers, Brownley would guarantee every district its current funding level in the first year, and her bill would not affect the affluent basic aid districts that get surplus funding from property taxes. But future legislatures, Brownley said in an interview, may begin to funnel more money into the weighted student funding or professional development.

Open to negotiations

AB 18 remains “a work in progress,” said Brownley, who is continuing to meet with defenders of existing categorical programs and advocates for low-income and English learners.

Among issues on the table:

  • Should some programs be protected? Adult education is an obvious example. Given flexibility, 80 percent of districts surveyed have cut adult ed money, some severely. Few districts spend dollars any longer on gifted and talented children.
  • Are categoricals in the right pot? Money for tutoring and extra programs for the high school exit exam, primarily benefiting low-income students, could easily be added to the weighted student formula money instead of base revenue.
  • How will the state hold districts accountable for spending professional development money for that purpose, or ensure that money for textbooks and qualified teachers for low-income children, won under the Williams case or established through categorical programs, will be spent on those children?
  • Will there be enough weight given to English learners and low-income students? Some groups like Public Advocates, which have called for finance reform for years – and are currently suing over it – are supportive of the process, and want to see how the weighted student formula ends up, said Liz Guillen, Director of  Legislative and Community affairs.

The one group – and a powerful one – that already is opposed to AB 18 is the California Teachers Association. Spokesman Mike Myslinksi said CTA has two concerns. “There needs to be more research about what the reforms and added  flexibility will mean for students before adopting them,” he said. Also, “now is not the time for broad financial reforms – not until adequate resources are in place, and there is adequate money for clean and safe schools.”

Brownley said she agreed that attention must be paid to potential consequences, which is why she continues to meet with education groups on the bill. However, now, in anticipation of more money in coming years, “the timing could not be more perfect.”

“If we continue to invest in a broken system, we will not get the outcomes we want. Let us change to a more rational, equitable, and effective system now,” she said.

6 Comments

  1. I think this bill is long overdue, and agree that it must be a “work in progress” to deal with several concerns (e.g. what happens to the underlying categorical statutes when they are lumped into the total revenue limit fund, how does it interact with charters, and several others).

    One concern with AB 18 is that it uses English learners (ELs) as a “weight” in the targeted pupil equity fund.  Several studies and expert testimony offered before the Assembly Education Committee last month suggests that “weights” should be based upon external factors that cannot be manipulated by school districts to increase funding.  California has a statewide English Language Development Test (the CELDT), but the state does not have a statewide standard that requires a pupil to be reclassified from EL status to English proficient.  As a result, some school districts already add local criteria as a means to retain students in EL status for the purpose of maintaining additional categorical funding.  Embedding EL status as a “weight” may exacerbate this problem.  It seems that the bill should include some means to control for this; perhaps a statewide standard to determine when a student no longer triggers the “weight” within the state fudning formula?

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  2. The questions about the law can best be answered by comparing it to:
    Getting Down to Facts:
    School Finance and Governance in California
    By Susanna Loeb, Anthony Bryk, and Eric Hanushek (2007)
    Ask these people PERSONALLY for a private comment.  I doubt if they can speak publicly easily on the law.

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  3. In these groups, are they assuming that money will go back into categorical buckets or will it permanently go into flex-and-sweep style financing as we are operating with now?

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  4. el: The Quality Instruction funding offers a menu of options from which districts could choose, from spending on recruitment and retention to math training. A district could choose to spend every penny on class-size reduction and none on professional development. The Targeted Student Equity piece says that the money could be spent “for any educational purpose that provides instruction or support services to English learners and low-income pupils, with the goal of improving the academic performance or workforce preparation of those pupils.” This may not satisfy those want more accountability to accompany flexibility. As for the base funding, districts would be free to spend the categorical money folded into that piece however it chooses — at least in the latest version of the bill.

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