Gov. Jerry Brown and a lot of public school officials are just now rediscovering how right the 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns was when he observed that “The best laid plans of mice and men oft’ go astray.”
The latest example in California is the new public school funding formula Brown aggressively pushed last year, one giving a greater portion of new money raised via the 2012 Proposition 30 tax increases to schools with the highest percentages of English learners, foster children and pupils from poverty-ridden homes.
Essentially, Brown wants to finish the job begun in 1971 by the Serrano v. Priest decision of the state Supreme Court, which directs most funds from newly approved property tax levies to the poorest districts.
“Equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice,” Brown said as he proposed giving districts with high concentrations of needy children as much as $5,000 per year more than wealthier districts for each such student they have. The grants would start lower and escalate over several years, the money added to the state’s base grant of $6,800 per year per child.
Officials of many better-heeled districts protested, suggesting the Brown proposal left out students from poverty-level homes who attend their schools. They provided numbers showing that districts in some generally well-to-do areas educate many disadvantaged students, even if their numbers don’t come up to the levels required to get the extra state money.
Those districts pushed for giving schools money based on the actual number of disadvantaged students they serve, rather than creating a threshold percentage schools must pass before getting extra money.
Their objections resulted in some change in the plan, with the extra money now being passed to districts on the basis of numbers at individual schools, rather than districtwide enrollments, an alteration made by the Legislature in June.
“Our disadvantaged students deserve more resources to overcome the extra obstacles they face, and this formula does just that,” said state Senate President Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat, after the changes were approved. Known as the local control funding formula, the new rules also give districts more control over how they spend state money they receive.
That’s the plan. But it’s not working out quite as Brown and the school administrators hoped, the same phenomenon Robbie Burns sagely noted more than 200 years ago.
Yes, districts are getting extra money for low-income pupils, English learners and foster children. The initial boost comes to about $2,800 per student.
But many districts are not getting all the money they expected because hundreds, perhaps thousands of families still have not turned in verification forms attesting to their income. So far, the state isn’t handing over money for students whose forms are not yet in, reasoning that without the forms, it can’t be sure the students actually exist or are really needy.
Districts, meanwhile, complain that they already verify students’ family income every four years to get federal funds for subsidized lunches, while the state demands new forms and will want them every year. Doing it again costs them time and money, they gripe.
For some of California’s largest districts, this paperwork problem amounts to tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. The Los Angeles Unified district, for example, had only about 40 percent of the required forms returned as of mid-December, with about $200 million at stake in the missing paperwork. In Fresno, hundreds of families were refusing to fill out forms, possibly worried about immigration problems.
In San Diego, only a small fraction of affected schools had turned in the forms by the same time.
If this problem continues and the state is left with an undistributed pot of cash, it should be divided among all schools on the basis of their federal lunch-money reports. Do that and poor kids who go to school with the children of the wealthy will benefit far more than they can under the current formula.
— Reach syndicated columnist Tom Elias at email@example.com