When it comes to setting education funding policies for California, preconceived notions have long held at least as much sway as actual reality.
Thus it was that when the state Supreme Court in 1971 issued its landmark Serrano v. Priest decision demanding that per-student school funding be equalized throughout the state, the presumption was that districts like Los Angeles, Oakland, San Bernardino and others serving large numbers of the urban poor would benefit most.
They did not. Rural districts benefit most from Serrano’s demand that state funding (before “categorical” money) allow differences between districts of no more than $350 per year per student.
Now another assumption guides the proposal of Gov. Jerry Brown to change funding again, giving extra money to school districts that have the most students who get government-subsidized lunches or are English learners or foster children,
That belief: School districts with the highest numbers of poor, “disadvantaged” students get less money per student than districts in wealthy areas. The presumption is so strong that Brown the other day called the entire issue a matter of “equity and civil rights.”
But like the idea behind the Serrano decision, this one also is off by quite a bit.
No district in California, for example, serves more English learners than Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest public school system. But spending per student in Los Angeles topped $10,700 per year in 2011-12, the latest year for which figures are available, even though it got only $5,421 in state money based on average daily attendance (for more such figures, see www.ed-data.k12.ca.us). The latest Los Angeles spending was about $500 per student below the previous year’s.
More than $5,000 per student per year in additional money for Los Angeles schools, then, came from other sources, based largely on the same kinds of considerations Brown wants to add to the state funding formula. Los Angeles, for example, got $1,889 per student in federal money in 2010-11, among the top figures nationally, most of it from Title I of the 1965 Education Act, funds aimed at “improving the academic achievement of the disadvantaged,” also Brown’s aim.
Almost $3,600 more that year per student came from the state for things like Advanced Placement classes, American Indian education, bilingual teacher training and school safety. That’s called “categorical funding,” and Brown wants to eliminate it, while still passing the funds out to districts.
He would let local school boards spend those dollars as they like, while sending them additional money according to his new criteria. There is considerable doubt most categorical classes will be eliminated, though, as each type has powerful, dedicated advocates.
This all leaves districts in many middle-class and wealthy areas feeling underrepresented and underfunded.
“It’s obvious that students in my district are not getting equal protection,” says Malcolm Sharp, school board member and clerk of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified district. His district gets about $2,500 per student per year less than nearby Los Angeles, and Sharp — who signs the layoff notices — complains it has had to cut 75 teachers from a prior staff of 550 since 2008.
Palos Verdes, like districts in similarly wealthy areas, has some students fitting into disadvantaged categories, but not enough to get significant added funding under the Brown formula, which would see some districts eventually get as much as $5,000 more per student than they do now.
“Some of our kids are living with their grandmas because their parents have been unemployed for a long time,” Sharp said. “Why should each of them get less than kids in Compton with the same problems? It just would not be fair.”
Or, as Democratic state Senate President Darrell Steinberg told reporters, “The governor’s way of doing it leaves poor kids in a non-poor district invisible.”
Then there’s the presumption that more money means better education. It’s no doubt true that too little money means poor education, but this doesn’t mean that the more money, the better the education. If it did, why wouldn’t Los Angeles students perform better on average than those in Palos Verdes, El Segundo, Coronado, Carpinteria, Clovis, Novato and other areas that get and spend less money?
On average, they don’t, on most standardized tests.
There is, therefore, no proof that new money will improve the performance of disadvantaged students.
What’s more, there’s a bit of bait-and-switch here. Last fall, Brown convinced school board members and boosters to campaign hard for his Proposition 30, believing their districts would get a fair share of the tax money it produced.
Instead, says Sharp, “Our demographic is mostly who is paying for Proposition 30, but (a lot of) the money is going elsewhere. That’s not a healthy thing.”
Put it all together and it’s clear that rather than operating on presumptions that often turn out to be wrong, legislators should be looking long and hard at what Brown’s proposed new formula actually can accomplish before making the radical change he’s pushing so aggressively.
— Reach syndicated columnist Tom Elias at email@example.com