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January 10, 2013

Viewpoints: California must confront how money is allocated to schools

In California we talk a lot about money for schools. Unfortunately, that's because there just isn't enough of it, and school budgets have taken a real beating in recent years.

In California we talk a lot about money for schools. Unfortunately, that's because there just isn't enough of it, and school budgets have taken a real beating in recent years.

Perhaps a signal that the tide is shifting, voters passed Proposition 30 in November to stave off drastic cuts to California schools and the Legislative Analyst's Office cautiously predicts moderate revenue growth in the next few years. While this is good news, those of us committed to improving student achievement and restoring excellence in all California schools will continue to fight for more resources because the need is so great.

However, there is another facet of this issue we must address as well: how funding is allocated to schools. For decades, layers of restrictions, requirements and new priorities have been added to the system, weighing it down and tying the hands of local educators and administrators. Today, it is a labyrinthine structure comprising dozens of separate categorical funding streams, each with different strings.

The result is a disjointed funding system that doesn't allow districts the flexibility to sufficiently fund the programs needed to keep pace with our high expectations for all students and to address persistent gaps in achievement. Further, the system treats students in similarly situated districts differently and doesn't recognize their individual educational needs. In May 2012, Policy Analysis for California Education summed up the state's inequitable school finance system this way: "No clear rationale explains the variations in how schools are funded. Funding levels are based on extraordinarily complicated calculations that often seem to defy all logic."

During the recent state fiscal crisis as funding for schools was cut by over $20 billion in four years, the state removed the strings attached to 40 categorical programs ($4.5 billion) and allowed districts to use those dollars for "any education purpose." While this flexibility provided districts an opportunity to manage the budget crisis, it also exposed the funding inequities these programs provided – ranging from none to thousands of dollars per pupil. This funding flexibility is set to expire in 2015, creating great fiscal uncertainty for districts as they face the prospect of returning to the old unequal, complex and irrational system.

The good news is that Gov. Jerry Brown has recognized the need to fix this.

We expect that later this week he will introduce a new school finance approach that would be transparent, equitable and direct money according to students' varying needs. Called "weighted pupil formula," it would permanently eliminate the dozens of categorical requirements now burdening the system, and instead allocate a flat base rate per pupil, plus an additional "weighted" amount for low-income students or those who aren't fluent in English.

The need to streamline the system to make it easier for all to understand and navigate is imperative as the state moves forward in implementing new curriculum standards. California and 44 other states have adopted the Common Core State Standards, which are internationally benchmarked and aim at ensuring students graduate from high school ready for college and/or careers. These standards were designed on the principle "fewer, higher, clearer," and this principle likewise should guide how we align our education finance system to the 21st century.

As districts are being held accountable for raising student achievement across the board, districts must have the flexibility and power to determine how to improve educational outcomes among all groups of students. A weighted pupil formula approach realistically addresses current student demographics and will give us the tools to create a system able to adapt, innovate and respond to changing circumstances – now and in the future.

We all know what is at stake. Not only will a more targeted and efficient investment in California students help them succeed, but California's economic growth, innovation and competitiveness depend on a well-prepared and able workforce. That begins in our schools.

There is more than one way to approach a weighted pupil formula funding system and, once the governor introduces his proposal, it will take the concerted input of all stakeholders to constructively address the inequities and complexities in the current system. The passage of Proposition 30 has allowed us to put the brakes on the cycle of cuts. Now, it is time to move forward to renew the state's financial investment in its public schools, rebuild what was lost in recent years and to build and grow a transparent, effective school finance system that reflects student needs.

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