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Money Must Follow the Student in Brown's School Funding Reform

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No matter what you think of its merits, you have to admire Governor Jerry Brown's new finance reform proposal for its sheer boldness. Many of us have been calling for years for a revamped California school funding system that is more rational, more equitable, and just plain simpler. Jerry Brown's K-12 budget surprised the education community on January 5th in trying to answer that call. From an equity advocate's perspective, there is both much to like and still many unsettled and unsettling questions.

One glaring shortcoming jumps out. Surprisingly for a proposal that purports to shift the finance system to an explicit focus on the extra hurdles faced by poor students and English Learners, there is no requirement that the extra funds be spent on ELs and low-income students at all. Without such a requirement, we seem doomed to repeat the status quo where the money follows the teachers and the well-off students and where achievement gaps remain unchanged.

The Governor's Proposal

As explained by blogger John Fensterwald and further elaborated on at a Finance budget briefing January 9th, the Governor proposes to eliminate nearly all categorical programs and their enabling statutes. Other than the few categoricals, all state funds flowing to districts will be distributed based on a weighted student formula that targets extra funds to districts for each student they teach who is either low-income or an English Learner. For districts with higher than average concentrations of poverty and/or EL students, they will receive an increasingly larger amount of money for each such student the greater the district population of low-income and/or EL students.

The shift to the weighted student formula system would be phased in over five years. The plan proposes, however, to institute immediately full flexibility with the entire pot of non-categorical state aid -- that is, districts will be freed of all restrictions and allowed to spend the funds any way they want, subject only to an as-yet undefined system of accountability that apparently will contain a mix of current state-level measures (like the existing Academic Performance Index) and new more qualitative local measures.

Adequacy Unaddressed

The most fundamental school finance question is left unaddressed by the Governor's plan: is there enough money to afford all students the opportunity to obtain the standards-based, college and career-ready education every student has been promised by the politicians in Sacramento and is in fact owed under the Constitution? Many think not. As Kathy Baron reports, Education Week gave California an F this month in school spending, ranking us 47th among the states. The 2008 State-requested Getting Down to Facts adequacy studies, while offering different cost estimates, all agreed that current spending is insufficient to deliver all students a standards-based education. Some of us are involved in litigation to address the matter, while others are pursuing ballot initiatives that will significantly help (the Governor's, unfortunately, is not one of those).

Money Must Follow the Student

Putting aside the adequacy question, the Governor's plan should be applauded for proposing a more rational and equitable finance system than the one we currently have. The most serious and curious shortcoming is its failure to make sure districts actually spend the weighted funds in the needy schools attended by the very students who generate those additional dollars for their district. Contrary to the Governor's characterization of his proposal as directing extra funds to the schools attended by poor students and English Learners, the proposal only directs the funds to districts and then, simultaneously, gives districts total spending flexibility. So low-income and EL students become a convenient mechanism for districts to receive more money -- which can then be spent on students who are neither poor nor learning English. That is very troubling. At a minimum, the extra funds generated by these students need to be directed to the schools these students attend.

Absent a requirement that the money follows the student, the proposal risks being worse than what we currently have. There are too many categoricals in California, it is true. But let us not forget that among the key reasons they originally came into being were to correct the fact that the neediest and often least politically powerful students were being overlooked by unfettered district "discretion." More than one educator has privately conceded to me that, absent rules requiring funds be spent in equal or greater measure on poor or EL students, districts will stray, pulled by pressures from adults -- be they influential parents or local unions or administrators with a different agenda.

Like the proposed weighted funding itself, the requirement that the money follow the student can also be phased in over time to allow districts to readjust their too often inequitable distribution of teacher quality dollars where typically the more experienced and expensive teachers teach the higher-performing students. If more expensive veterans do not want to move, at least the schools with concentrations of needy students will be able to purchase the extra staff that will provide for smaller classes and supplemental supports. In Oakland, which has been experimenting with site-based, weighted student funding, such measures have helped attract and retain young teachers where before they quickly moved on to the more affluent schools. Shoring up resource provision, including teacher quality, in low-income schools is the only way we will be able to begin to close the achievement gaps.

The Administration is likely worried about overly complicating the finance system by requiring that funds follow students to their schools. Yet, as Mike Kirst, the State Board Chair and one of the Governor's key advisors on this proposal noted on KQED's Forum show January 13th, Florida has implemented such a system. And too, the concept is not all that different than requirements found with federal Title I, special education and state Economic Impact Aid dollars that they be spent on the needy students who generated them.

Some will argue that simply requiring transparency about how much is spent at each school and/or holding districts accountable for achievement outcomes will lead districts to direct their resources to the neediest students. Accountability is necessary and while it alone may work for some districts, it won't work as a general principle. Only holding schools accountable on the back end after the funds have been spent and gaps have not been addressed will too often prove too little too late. The additional resources need to be affirmatively directed to these schools on the front end.

Similarly, increasing transparency about how the funds are spent is essential. Historically, however, low-income and immigrant families have not exercised the same political power with local school boards that their middle and upper-class neighbors have. Relying on transparency and accountability alone to drive funds to the neediest schools is hoping indirect pressures will do what we all know should be directly required.

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