EDITORIAL: State's draft of new school funding plan is a disaster

Brown must insist that money helps those with greatest needs.

November 7, 2013 

The State Board of Education is about to have an uprising on its hands. Some 200 Californians from across the state are getting on buses in the wee hours of the morning to be present for an 8 a.m. agenda item today.

What is sparking this level of interest and anger? The board has come out with a first draft of rules for the state's new education funding formula. Across the political spectrum, people who worked hard for passage of the new law feel betrayed.

The new law, they thought, was clear. Local school districts no longer would have to spend money on a host of "categorical" programs dictated by the state. Instead, they would get a base per-pupil amount to cover the basic cost of education for the average student, plus extra funding for students with greater needs.

Gov. Jerry Brown had clearly explained why: "Our future depends not on across-the-board funding, but in disproportionately funding those schools that have disproportionate challenges." He needs to make it clear he stands by this principle.

The first draft, being discussed today, is shockingly off mark. As the critics note, "It would allow school districts to spend the money any way they wish without having to demonstrate that they are using state funds to increase or improve services for disadvantaged students."

Under the draft, school districts could choose among three options: spend more, provide more or achieve more. The possible perversities of this scheme are endless.

Because the "provide more" option is delinked from the "spend more" option, school districts could claim to "spend more" on high-need students -- for example, decreasing class sizes for all students -- without actually increasing or improving services for disadvantaged students.

But the "achieve more" option is the big problem. It doesn't require money or services to go to disadvantaged students at all. A district could improve its Academic Performance Index by 1 point over two years without ever increasing services to disadvantaged students. It would be free to spend its extra dollars on anything -- such as a new football stadium or a salary increase for teachers.

California needs good rules to make the new school funding formula work as promised. Gov. Brown needs to speak out, and the state board should direct staff to go back and redraft rules that make the grade.

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