SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY -- As predictions about education spending swirl over the next two weeks, the key point for San Joaquin Valley residents to remember is that there are far higher numbers of needy children here. From revenue sources to school spending to test scores, poverty skews all the numbers.
About 60 percent of students in Stanislaus County qualify as low income; about 30 percent are learning English.
Valley demographics particularly matter when looking at the local impact of the federal "fiscal cliff" and proposed changes to state education funding called the "weighted formula."
The bad news: Tuesday, failing congressional action, federal taxes will rise and expenses will be cut as part of a budget pact labeled the fiscal cliff.
Among those cuts, starting in 2013-14, would be an 8 percent cut in federal education funding for poor students, English learners, Head Start and special education funding that valley districts count on.
The good news: On Jan. 10, the governor's preliminary budget is due and, for the first time in years, more money is expected for education. Gov. Jerry Brown is pushing hard to direct most of that increase to helping impoverished students and English learners.
School business officials have been told the state plans to increase school funding by $4 billion, or about 8 percent over 2012-13.
"We've had five years of negative, negative, negative, and now we have this first glimmer of light," said Don Gatti, head of the business division of the Stanislaus County Office of Education.
Much of that would go to implementing the weighted formula, if it comes to pass, Gatti said. The extra would be needed to keep funding level for richer districts that would get less under a weighted formula.
Big increase possible
Stanislaus County districts, however, stand to benefit from the change.
Under the weighted formula Brown unsuccessfully proposed last year, Oakdale Joint Unified had the lowest projected rise in the county, a 24 percent bump.
Modesto City Schools would have nearly doubled its basic daily attendance funding for elementary and middle school students, from $85 million to $167 million a year.
Some 84 percent of its younger students qualify as low income, and 38 percent are learning English. To serve these students, Modesto schools provide extra academic help, after-school programs, translators and additional training for teachers. High-poverty schools seek sponsors, mentors and grants.
At Orville Wright Elementary, in Modesto's airport neighborhood, Principal Heather Sherburn campaigns for coats and shoes. She tries to help families fill out forms, find a dentist or get emergency food aid. Summer programs help preschoolers who are far behind get ready for kindergarten and grade-schoolers try hands-on science. Roughly half the school's children move during the year, and a significant number are living in cars or on a friend's couch.
Targeting more resources to schools with poor children makes sense, said Michael W. Kirst, president of the State Board of Education and a Stanford University professor who co-wrote a 2008 paper that became the model for Brown's proposal.
"Low-income people have less resources to invest in their children," Kirst said. "A lot of investment comes from parental ability to buy external things for their kids that provide a better education. In the case of low-income groups, they can't buy tutors, after-school programs or summer experiences."
Brown is reworking his 2012 proposal for his January budget, hoping that passage of his tax hike has given school officials confidence they all will receive sufficient money.
Brown officials held three workshops this fall to solicit input, as well as build goodwill with education groups.
'A greater totality of needs'
One of the most controversial parts of Brown's proposal last year gave districts an additional boost if more than half of students qualify as low-income or English learners. The idea was that a concentration of at-risk students dramatically increases need.
"There's a greater totality of needs if you have a school with 95 percent of students that need intervention than if you have 2 percent of students," said Brooks Allen, director of education advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which has been fighting to ensure that low-income schools receive more aid. "We thought that was a strength of the proposal."
The challenge with overhauling any decades-old finance system is that losing Capitol interests will resist change. The rich-poor divide is not the only one.
Brown's proposal would eliminate most earmarks called "categoricals." Categoricals emerged over dec- ades after lawmakers and special interests identified one problem or another and wanted to encourage districts to correct them.
For years, the state has provided schools with a lengthy list of earmarked funds for things such as bilingual teacher training, arts programs and community-based English tutoring. One program notifies parents of kindergartners and first-graders that their children must obtain a dental exam before they start school. That requirement came from a 2006 bill by then-Assemblyman Bill Emmerson, an orthodontist.
In the wake of recent budget cuts, the state temporarily relaxed most earmarks, telling districts they still could receive funds without spending on state-driven priorities.
Many such programs have strong support, however. The California State PTA lobbied hard for arts funding.
The California Teachers Association has backed incentives for districts to reduce class sizes and hire more teachers. In workshops, the CTA has asked that Brown preserve money for class-size reduction.
The more Brown maintains funding protections for any group, however, the further he strays from his original goal.
Without describing specifics, Brown's Department of Finance spokesman, H.D. Palmer, said the governor's desire is "to move decision-making responsibility and accountability to the local level."
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2339, and on Twitter, @NanAustin.