Brown wants financing reformWeighted formula's demise exaggerated
Gov. Jerry Brown hasn’t taken the Education Coalition’s “no” as a final answer on a weighted student funding plan.
In the last two weeks, Brown administration officials have been telling districts and civil rights groups that he remains determined to reform how schools are financed. However, Brown also is open to changing the formula to respond to some of the objections to his initial proposal, Sue Burr, executive director of the State Board of Education and the governor’s key education adviser, said this week.
“The governor made a proposal in January, and, as with all governors, he intends to see it through,” Burr said.
Brown is proposing to simplify the state’s complex, inequitable and outmoded funding system while directing about an extra third more dollars per student to English learners and low-income children. Brown’s version of weighted student funding is largely modeled on a plan proposed four years ago by Stanford emeritus professor Michael Kirst, who’s now president of the State Board of Education, and others. Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Committee on Education Excellence endorsed the idea, as have civil rights advocates. Even the Education Coalition, representing school districts, the state PTA, and employee unions, in its March 6 letter opposing Brown’s plan, praised its “laudable goals.”
However, coming off of consecutive years of budget cuts, the Ed Coalition letter called this “the worst possible time to consider changes to the school funding formula.” As proposed, the formula would simply redistribute dollars while leaving substantial budget cuts in place, the Coalition said. Though not in the letter, several education leaders questioned Brown’s judgment in creating potentially divisive policy changes, with winners and losers among districts, at the same time that he was campaigning for a significant tax increase in November.
Burr acknowledged there was “a major miscommunication” when the weighted student formula was introduced in January that fed the assumption that the administration did not plan to pay back money owed to schools. This debt, called the deficit factor, primarily consists of unpaid cost-of-living adjustments, and now totals about $9 billion, or 20 percent of Prop 98 funding. With the Department of Finance projecting an additional $16 billion in new Proposition 98 funding over the next six years, assuming the proposed tax increase passes, the deficit factor could be repaid, while the weighted student formula is phased in, Burr said.
Brown has proposed phasing in the weighted student formula over six years. Every district would receive a base funding level plus 37 percent extra per child for every unduplicated English learner and poor child. Districts with concentrations of disadvantaged children would get an additional percentage increase – as much as $3,500 or more per child.
Paying off money owed to schools
The current plan proposes raising the base and the extra weights equally as Proposition 98 revenue increases over time, about 40 percent at the end of six years. But another way is to build up just the base as the deficit factor is repaid, Burr said. That would address criticisms of suburban districts with few disadvantaged students, which would see their per-student funding barely increase under the initial proposal. This would mark a significant change while initially reducing extra money for needy children.
Nothing is final, Burr said, because the governor hasn’t made up his mind on various options.
Other changes that the administration is considering:
- Differentiating funding levels by grade level. That’s how funding is now, with high schools getting more money per student. Setting a uniform rate hurt high school districts under the current weighted student formula. The administration has all but committed to this change.
- Maintaining funding for a few categorical programs as special cases, therefore not including them in the pot for redistribution under the weighted student formula. One is bus transportation, whose funding Brown had proposed protecting for only one year. The argument is that some small rural districts could potentially lose thousands of dollars per child if transportation money is not protected. Another is called the Targeted Instruction Improvement Grants, or TIIG. This is basically desegregation money, totaling nearly $900 million, that for years has primarily gone to a few urban districts: Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose. The policy argument is that these districts entered into court-approved plans for spending the money. The political argument is that Brown needs the support of these districts.
- Taking a few years longer to phase in the reforms.
- Stretching out paying down $10 billion in deferrals, late payments to schools that are part of the state’s “wall of debt.” Brown has an accelerated schedule for eliminating deferrals. Instead, he could scale this back.
Brown will make changes to the weighted student formula part of his revised state budget in mid-May. As Burr notes, every year the Legislature can examine the funding formula and tweak it to make it right. “Every year, the Legislature can make a judgment,” she said. “The formula is not set in stone.”
The Education Coalition still may not change its position, but Brown only needs a 50 percent majority of the Legislature. The big winners under the formula – districts like Fresno, Santa Ana, Los Angeles, and San Bernardino – have yet to make their voices heard. And a formula that is more palatable to some of the “losers” would make it easier to pass.