Brown plans extensive changes for school funding in 2013

by Anthony York, Los Angeles Times

Gov. Jerry Brown will push this year to upend the way schools are funded in California, hoping to shift more money to poorer districts and end requirements that billions of dollars be spent on particular programs.

Brown said he wants more of the state’s dollars to benefit low-income and non-English-speaking students, who typically are more expensive to educate.

"The reality is, in some places students don’t enjoy the same opportunities that people have in other places," the governor said in an interview. "This is a way to balance some of life’s chances."

He would also scale back ‘ and possibly eliminate ‘ dozens of rules that districts must abide by to receive billions in state dollars. Some of those requirements, such as a mandate to limit class size, have been suspended amid Sacramento’s recurrent budget problems but are set to resume by 2015.

Brown and his aides are keeping most details under wraps. But advisers say his proposals, part of the budget blueprint to be unveiled early this month, will amount to the most extensive changes in decades in the relationship between school districts and state government.

His intentions are already raising concerns among school administrators, district officials and labor unions. The governor postponed earlier plans to push for the changes when the discord threatened to distract from his campaign for higher taxes. Voters approved the tax hikes in November, averting billions of dollars in education cuts.

Now, the transformation of school funding is at the top of his agenda. He says his goal is more local control.

"What the state has done for 40 years is develop one new program after another to compensate for underperforming" schools, he said. "What we have now is command and control issuing from headquarters in Sacramento."

Scores of programs set up by state mandate ‘ for smaller classes, bilingual education and summer school, for example ‘ have their own pots of money sent from Sacramento to pay for them. The Public Policy Institute of California found that nearly 40% of every dollar sent to schools from both the state and federal governments is earmarked for such a purpose.

The programs vary in size and scope: $4.5 million to meet the needs of Native American students, $10 million to improve school Internet access, more than $618 million set aside for school buses, etc.

According to Brown’s Department of Finance, 56 such programs received a total of $11.8 billion in state funds last year. The result, the governor says, is a bloated school bureaucracy that takes money away from core instruction.

"You have to have administrators at the state level, district level and at the school level who are engaged in making sure this money is used for what it’s supposed to be used for," Brown said. "This constant articulation of rules is a world unto itself that is not directly supporting the teacher in the classroom."

But many of the programs are popular with parents and various interest groups and have staunch defenders in the Capitol. They say lifting restrictions on how schools spend their money could hurt struggling students.

In recent years, state lawmakers have offered districts some flexibility to cope with rounds of budget cuts. The results, some say, have not always been good, leading to larger classes and sharp reductions in programs for adults trying to earn a high school degree.

Since 2008, the average class size in kindergarten through third grade has grown from 20 to 23, among the largest in the nation, according to a study from the Public Policy Institute of California. During the same period, the average class size elsewhere in the country remained at around 15 students.

In addition, "since schools have been given greater flexibility, adult education … has been decimated throughout the state," said Jeff Freitas, secretary-treasurer of the California Federation of Teachers. "You can’t just give the locals carte blanche with the money."

Shifting money to poorer schools at the expense of wealthier ones is also certain to stir protest.

Under a similar proposal the governor floated last year, the Department of Finance estimated that Compton Unified schools would see an uptick of more than $4,700 per pupil by the 2017-18 school year. Manhattan Beach Unified would get a per-student increase of just $681.

Those who have met with Brown’s top education aides expect the governor to propose a similar formula in January, asking districts to account for the expenditures to make sure the funds serve higher-needs students.

Adonai Smith, a lobbyist for the Assn. of California School Administrators, said his members would not support a plan that amounts to a "redistribution of resources."

The governor says that even if funding is tweaked to favor more poor students and English learners, all schools will receive more money now that state revenue is on the uptick.

"I want to align more closely the money schools receive with the problems that teachers encounter," Brown said. "When somebody’s teaching in Compton, it’s a much bigger challenge than teaching in Beverly Hills."