Battling Jerry "Bulldog" Brown is back, and with the right cause. He vowed Wednesday "to fight with everything I have and whatever we have to bring to bear" to overhaul what his budget calls the state's "overly complex, administratively costly and inequitably distributed" school funding system.
After doing virtually nothing to engage the Legislature on this since January, it took a Senate proposal (Senate Bill 69, by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg) that modifies key elements to rouse Brown to action.
He is right to "fight any effort to dilute this bill." Now he has to follow through, especially with the Assembly, which has been less inclined than the Senate to support change.
Brown should hold firm on implementation for 2013-14 and resist the Senate's proposed delay until the following year. While the Senate is absolutely right that the governor's far-reaching proposal deserves to go through the policy process – not just get tacked on as a budget trailer bill – there is absolutely no logistical reason why the Legislature cannot get this passed by June 15.
The Senate Budget Committee already has held hearings. A Senate Education Committee hearing is scheduled for May 1. Steinberg has promised a Senate Appropriations hearing before May 24. The bill goes to the Senate floor for a vote the last week of May. This is very doable, in time for school districts to adjust their budgets by July 1.
Brown rightly eliminates most "categorical" programs that require districts to spend money on a designated purpose, a bureaucratic, complicated mess. The heart of his proposal is a new per-pupil funding formula built around three principles:
Base per-pupil funding, to cover the basic cost of education for the average student.
Supplemental funding for students with greater needs. Not all students come to school with the same advantages. To help low-income students and English learners overcome the disadvantages they bring to the starting line, they need additional educational services.
Extra funding to districts with a concentration of disadvantaged students. As a 2008 paper notes, students in a school with high concentrations of poverty "face a double disadvantage arising not only from their own poverty but also from the poverty of their peers."
The Senate proposal eliminates the "concentration" factor. Steinberg says senators worry about how the governor's proposal would ignore "invisible kids" in relatively affluent districts that nonetheless have schools with high concentrations of disadvantaged kids. This is a reason to tweak, not eliminate, the governor's concentration factor – to ensure that funds go to the schools that disadvantaged kids attend.
Brown should be open to Senate provisions that strengthen his proposal. For example, SB 69 is much better on accountability, making sure that funds generated by disadvantaged students are actually spent to improve their academic performance, with state or county education entities intervening where districts do not show improvement.
The reality is that some lawmakers are seeking to eliminate Brown's concentration factor to put more money in the base funding, in order to placate suburban districts. These districts have been screaming for more flexible funding for 40 years. The governor gives them that. They should be willing to give a little to make a big difference to improve education for high-need students.
Bulldog Brown should stand fast on implementation this year for his three-point formula, to begin to restore educational opportunity and reverse California's slide into a "two-tier society."