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May 30, 2013
Peter Schrag: Here comes yet another school funding fix


(May 30 -- By Peter Schrag, Special to The Bee)

Earlier this month, as an Assembly Budget subcommittee was preparing to re-slice Gov. Jerry Brown's local-control school funding sausage, state Controller John Chiang's office issued a scathing report about the mess in the financial practices of the Oakland Unified School District.

It would take this whole page even to summarize it. The district's accounting records, it said were "deficient"; it failed to engage an independent auditor for two prior years; it refused to provide statements of certain net assets. Thus there just wasn't enough information for Chiang's auditor to judge some of the district's basic financial statements.

As Brown proposes to shift more school funding decisions to local districts, does anyone want to give more discretion to Oakland - or to any of a list of other dysfunctional districts such as Compton or Vallejo or West Fresno or West Contra Costa (Richmond) - that have been in and out of fiscal difficulties in the past decade or so?

Yes, some have sufficiently cleaned up their fiscal practices to reclaim control from the baby sitters that the state Education Department appointed to oversee them and to manage the multimillion-dollar bailouts that they got to scrabble out of the holes they had dug for themselves.

The whole history of public school finance in the past century has been one of swings between local control and state and federal intervention to correct the perceived inadequacies that local control brought: neglect of poor, minority and immigrant kids; deep slides into academic mediocrity and indifference; local boosters preferring winning high school football teams to high achievement; imposition of religious dogma on the teaching of science.

Brown's weighted school funding plan, now renamed the Local Control Funding Formula, would provide a base of about $6,800 for each student, plus a 35 percent supplement for every student from a poor family and for every English language learner.

With some exceptions, the Brown plan would replace some of the categorical funding that California - like many other states - had adopted to compensate for the gaps in local funding practices.

Despite their popularity, categoricals like California's multibillion-dollar class size reduction program often were only marginally effective. Some were based more on pure politics than any study or research for effectiveness.

The same applies to Brown's weighted funding formula. It's obvious that most students from poor families or those whose native language is something other than English are more expensive to educate than those from more advantaged backgrounds. But how much more?

And since the numbers are continually adjusted in response to political pressure from districts or interest groups wanting more, they lose whatever sense they might have made when they were first proposed. Brown's original plan also included additional funding for districts with high concentrations of high-need students.

The changes in Brown's formula that the education subcommittee of the Assembly Budget Committee adopted last week would increase the base amount but reduce the supplemental and concentration grants for poor students and English learners. And the extra weights for needy students may get chopped still more - or maybe eliminated altogether - in the Legislature's budget negotiations today. In the end, poor kids usually end up in the back of the line.

The Assembly plan also includes an "aspirational goal" of bringing average per student spending in California up to the national average. That's a high "aspiration."

California hasn't been anywhere near the national average for decades, and even that's probably not adequate. The gap is now around $10 billion - nearly $1,700 per student.

All that tinkering is a good indication of what's likely to occur once local school boards, themselves buffeted by local pressure groups - parents, unions, business interests - get control of the money. Poor kids have always been neglected because they don't have influential people representing them.

In the past half-century, tens of billions in federal money supposedly designed to help disadvantaged kids were sucked by states and local districts into general aid or by unions into teacher salaries. What reason do we now have that that dynamic will soon change? What's to make it any more likely that the neediest students will at last get good teachers?

Brown's plan includes various sanctions for districts whose students consistently fail to meet academic targets. But we've had decades of experience with sanctions. California has been struggling to get out from under the federal sanctions for failing to meet the targets of the federal No Child Left Behind school funding law of 2002. That law was supposed to be a partial fix for the misuse of the federal funds targeted to poor kids in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Fix, fix, fix.

The only real fix will have to be more fundamental than yet another school funding formula: It will take a change in cultural attitudes, in appreciation for learning, in understanding the crucial economic importance of educating a skilled labor force and committed citizens, many of them immigrants and their children, for the nation's future. Tinkering isn't enough.

Peter Schrag is a former editorial page editor of The Bee.

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