Slow track for finance reform

Brownley makes AB 18 a 2-year bill

AB 18, Assemblywoman Julia Brownley’s major overhaul of education finance, flew through the Assembly with near unanimity (74-2) last month. Passage seemed too easy, and it was. With union opposition and questions about a lack of specificity stirring, Brownley last week pulled the bill from its scheduled hearing in the Senate this week and has made AB 18 a two-year bill, with hearings to come next year.

That shouldn’t be surprising. Brownley, a Santa Monica Democrat who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, continued to describe the bill as a work in progress. It sailed through the Assembly based on its promise: to simplify a convoluted finance system, make funding more equitable, and eventually steer more money to high-needs children. On those points there is general agreement, at least in concept.

In reorganizing many funding streams and categories into three, AB 18 would vastly simplify the current system. But equity is in the mind of the beholder. In promising to hold all districts harmless, AB 18 would initially lock in disparities in legacy funding and idiosyncratic differences in special-purpose funds known as categorical programs. Some districts, for example, get much more adult education funding than others. Los Angeles Unified gets a disproportionately large allocation of Economic Impact Aid for minority children.

Equalization – the process of making similar funding streams more uniform  – was to be put off for another time. But AB 18, to its credit, would spell out the current winners and losers in ways that have not been apparent. Once districts see the differences spelled out, underfunded districts will likely push for dealing with equalization sooner than later.

AB 18, as I have explained before, would divvy up Proposition 98 funding into three large piles of money, based on student enrollment, with special education funding treated separately. Districts would have flexibility over how to spend categorical funds that would be rolled into the three funding areas:

  • Base spending, including the  current revenue limit funding and two dozen categoricals, would be the largest.
  • Quality Instruction Funding, combining the class-size reduction program and eight teacher-training-related  programs, now funded at $1.8 billion, would be spent on professional development and teacher and principal recruitment and retention.
  • Targeted Student Equity Funding would include eight categorical programs, including Economic Impact Aid. It would be aimed directly at low-income students and English learners. Brownley has said the goal of AB 18 would be to make increasing this fund over time a priority. How much hasn’t been decided.

The California Teachers Association had opposed the bill, on the grounds that there should be more time to explore the unpredictable impacts of the bill. That argument won out, in extending the bill to another year. But CTA was also unhappy to see class-size reduction, a categorical program it has championed, folded into Quality Instruction Funding, in which districts could choose not to fund smaller classes. The California School Employees Association, representing bus drivers, will lobby to have the transportation categorical fund pulled out of base spending. And other interest groups will advocate excluding other categorical funds from the mix – defeating the primary purpose of the bill – simplicity – and limiting how much will be available for needy kids.

Other issues

A finance overhaul should also consider questions not as yet covered by the bill:

  • What should be the funding differentials between unified, elementary, and high school districts?
  • Should incentives for consolidation of small districts be included?
  • Should the finance system recognize cost of living differences among regions of the state? (It costs more for teachers to live in San Francisco than Clovis.)
  • How much extra should districts get to educate a disadvantaged student: 10, 20, 25 percent?

Brownley said last week that she would look forward to “continuing our discussions” with education groups. Credit her for taking on an ambitious goal. It won’t get any easier in the second year.

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  1. Actually, John, most of the questions you raise have already been pondered and answered in one research study.
    The title of it was “Adequacy and Equity in Public school funding:  A Professional Judgment Approach.”
    It was art of a much larger study, “Getting Down to Facts,”  Funded by the Gates and Irvine foundations in 2006-07.
    It was asked to design educational programs that would make it possible for students of all types, economic status, rural. urban and suburban and elementary, school, middle school, and high school, advantaged, disadvantaged to reach California’s rigid academic standards.
    The panels did not cost out each of the nine educational program designs.  The costing out was done by the researchers themselves.  The job of the two panels was to simply program for different combinations of educational cirmstances: geographic type, (rural, suburban, and urban);  educational configuration:  (elementary, middle school, and high school) and community economic level.
    If we keep in mind that this a 2006 study, the numbers are a bit outdated, but their levels compared to each of the others is most likely still valid as well as the proportions of dollar allocation between educational programs within school districts.
    A quick google: ……professional judgment panel stanford california…..will get you right to the study.  The conclusions in the last columns of the report deserve reviewing by all and considered by policy makers and the Legislature.

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    • If only one study could answer all of legislators’ issues, Lee. Thanks for the reminder of the value of Getting Down to Facts – always a good starting point in the debate. The professional judgement method is just one way to estimate adequate costs — and is often criticized because educators base costs on the status quo, how we do things now, not on how much more will be needed if we adopt school and governance reforms to make funding more effective and efficient. Teams of researchers in the study you refer to recommended a roughly 60 percent increase in funding, which, given where we are today, would be closer to probably 80 or 100 percent. Nothing of this magnitude is contemplated in the bill.

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  2. This is such an important issue, especially when one considers the current disparities in funding allocations across districts and schools. What concerns me is the lobbying clout of the huge, urban districts in these discussions. Smaller, often rural areas with very different needs are often stuck with decisions that negatively impact them due to the political and financial influence of LAUSD, etc.  If California school finance is really to be overhauled, then it should occur, hand in hand with breaking down some district barriers. Small, often rural districts (I now live in one, so finally understand the issues from the ground up!) would benefit from allowing flow between schools/districts to maintain specific programs – such as orchestra, AP Physics, languages, etc. If ADA could be pooled between schools/programs there could be a reduction in the disparity in AP (for example) provision in rural areas. We know what a difference it makes to offer high quality, engaging college preparation courses for students who want to compete for excellent college programs, yet many are cut out of the process simply because of a numbers game. Maybe there should be some “townhall” type meetings so that the perspectives of the diverse clients in Cal K-12 schools can be discussed. Having moved from La Jolla to Bayside in NorCal, with one kid who went through LJHS to Stanford, I am experiencing the costs and benefits to educating my children in different areas. We are the same parents – but the kids receive very different opportunities – and equity of provision is not evident. I look forwards to following your insights on this legislation.

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  3. You mentioned that, “Los Angeles Unified gets a disproportionately large allocation of Economic Impact Aid for minority children.”  I assume you are speaking about the federal elementary/secondary program Impact Aid.

    LAUSD actually receives a rather small allocation of Impact Aid based on what they are entitled to in the current funding formula adopted by Congress in 2000.  In addition, Impact Aid is not allocated to public school districts based on the numbers of minority children.  It funds school districts for a loss of tax revenue based on a federal presence.  Basic Support dollars within Impact Aid provide funds to school districts based on children who parents serve in the military, children who live on Trust or Treat land or children who reside in federally owned low-rent housing facilities. 

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  4. My hope is that we have a public school finance system that is clear to the public, fair, and accomplishes equity for children that have disadvantages.  I can’t emphasize enough that extra resources will be needed for many of our children if we want to see proficiency in all students.

    We spend too much time imagining details of a school finance system without getting to the core of our problem with school finance.  No system will be good for California unless is it adequately funded. 

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  5. John   When this so called “reform”  left the Assembly it provided a cut to every school district that previously provided Adult Education.  It cut Los Angeles Unified by more than $400 million.   You foundation guys really do love this kind of reform

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  6. Right…Good old Getting Down to Facts. Forgot about that one. As I recall there were two parts of that study that are rarely brought up. One said we need around $34 billion in increases to meet the needs of CA’s students. That’s $34 billion on top of the roughly $20 billion in recent cuts. Over $50 billion. Yikes! Now we’re talking real money. Then there was the study indicating it would take over $1 trillion to bring CA’s student learning in line with the standards. That’s world class funding to achieve world class academic achievement.
    I’m still waiting.

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  7. The reality is that many UC professors have left for other universities, not just because of their own salary, but because of the uncertainty for their graduate students, their entire team and for their projects. Often these groups bring substantial amounts of outside research money in, and create other benefits in terms of patents and spin-off ventures.
    Highly paid UC staff includes not only the stereotypical professor, but also a large staff of medical doctors, who again generally are bringing in outside money sufficient to cover their salaries.

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  8. It is a shame that the bill is being delayed. Of course it is understandable given the complexity of the bill. It would be nice to see the school-based financial reporting move forward this year even if the rest of the bill did not.  John Mockler has a good point about Adult Education not competing well in a finance reform world. It should be mentioned that current law treats Adult Education the same way, and the reductions that John referenced are happening right now even without this bill. From my perception a long term fix for Adult Education is needed at some point. Like the rest of the state’s finance system, the distribution of Adult Education funds depend  mostly on the program that districts had in place prior to Prop 13. And some communities are well served by Adult Education, others by the community college non-credit programs, and some by a combination of the two. Of course, the level of service that communities receive through a combination of these two programs has no underlying relationship to the level of need in a community. And the funding levels differ between the two programs. Once again, the state needs to move toward a rational finance system that bases the level of service on underlying needs.

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