Brown’s school finance plan faces rough political road

While Gov. Jerry Brown’s wide-reaching overhaul of school finance has received some favorable response, there is a steep political hill to climb, translating that good will into real legislative change.

The governor’s plan would consolidate virtually all state school money under a new distribution formula that favors low-income and English-learners.The new formula would be phased in over five years.

Many in the education community cheer the idea of moving away from the existing system, which is best known for its complexity and inequity. But there are serious concerns about moving too quickly to a new system at a time when schools are deep in crisis mode.

Also, the governor’s plan almost invites opposition, with a funding formula that creates winners and losers among districts beginning with the 2012-13 fiscal year.

These potential critics would join with a significant list of interest groups that would lose specific funding  underthe governor’s plan to eliminate virtually all of the state’s categorical programs.

Given such circumstances, some observers are skeptical the plan can be maneuvered through the Legislature in just one year.

“It’s a very difficult political issue made almost impossible when you introduce winners and losers into the mix given the current fiscal situation,” said Peter Birdsall, executive director of the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association.

Birdsall noted, however, that some change is likely in the near future. He said the existing system has been permanently altered since the Legislature granted spending flexibility to 39 categorical programs in 2009.

“That really does change the dynamics,” he explained. “I don’t think there are many people who believe we will be going back to the old system when flexibility ends. So that means that the governor, Legislature, and the education community will need to do something that moves us off the status quo.”

Perhaps no one in California is better acquainted with the politics of school spending reform than Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica. She has made the goal of a simpler, more transparent system a centerpiece of her agenda since 2006.

Brownley said in an interview last week that she has not seen enough detail about the governor’s program to form a full opinion – but agreed much of it is consistent with her restructuring bill, AB 18.

“I think we are on the same track, in terms of knowing that our state finance system is antiquated and irrational and there is a need for it to be simplified and directed toward the outcomes we are trying to achieve,” she said.

Indeed, both AB 18 and the governor’s plan seek to simplify the system by consolidating programs. Also, both would provide a base allocation that would be augmented by a formula weighted to help disadvantaged students.

But there are major differences. One is that AB 18 deals only with the restructuring of categorical money, whereas Brown’s plan contemplates redirecting virtually all state school support,including revenue limits as well as almost all the categorical programs.

The other big difference is that Brownley has tried not to create winners and losers out of the revision, at least at the outset – while the governor’s plan will.

Without commenting on the governor’s plan, Brownley said her bill is responsive to districts’ district’s need for certainty at the start.

“Everyone agrees that we need a more transparent and equitable system – but if we start out with winners and losers, given the financial crunch we are in – it’s a non-starter,” she said.

Brownley said that AB 18 is still very much a viable piece of legislation, although she is expecting to talk to the administration more about how her bill and the governor’s plan might be integrated.

Despite the challenges, she said, the time might be right for sweeping change.

“People agree that the system is broken and that it is not designed to meet the goals we are trying to accomplish,” she said. “If we know that, how can we just keep the status quo?”

Ed’s Note:  Cabinet Report is dedicated to covering K-12 education issues in California. Visit to subscribe. Selected stories have been shared with Capitol Weekly with permission from School Innovations & Advocacy, owner and publisher. 

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