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In a notable display of bipartisan support, the state Assembly approved potentially landmark school financing legislation by a 74-2 vote this week. The vote reflected an overwhelming consensus on the need to reform the way schools are funded.
The fact that Republicans unanimously voted for the legislation could smooth its passage through the Legislature. GOP support was no doubt bolstered by the fact that two leading business groups – the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and the Bay Area Council – are sponsors of the bill, along with the California Department of Education.
The legislation, AB 18, authored by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, the chairperson of the Assembly Education Committee, now goes to the state Senate for consideration. But the nearly unanimous degree of support that it received in the Assembly suggested that for the first time in years, significant changes in school financing could emerge from Sacramento.
Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, said that the vote "reflects the strength of conviction that leaders have for the need for California to get its act together." He said the current system is "overly complicated, overly burdensome and ineffective."
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Said Paul Hefner, a spokesperson for state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, "There is clearly a need to make sure that the dollars we are investing in education are directed to the greatest need, and are helping schools achieve the best possible results."
Gov. Jerry Brown has yet to take a position on Brownley's legislation, but key elements are similar to ones proposed by Brown during his gubernatorial campaign last fall. His plan, in turn, echoes recommendations made by policy advocates and researchers in recent years.
A core part of Brown's plan is to provide school funds using a "simple weighted formula based on specific needs of the students in the district." Brownley's bill also calls for funding based on a "weighted student funding approach" related to the number of English learners and economically disadvantaged pupils in a district.
Brown's plan envisions consolidating dozens of "categorical programs" to less than 20, while Brownley's bill consolidates categorical funding into a "target pupil equity grant" as a way to simplify funding.
One key hurdle is the California Teachers Association, the only declared opponent of the bill. The association says it opposes introducing fundamental reforms without further research into possible "unintended consequences." It also worries about changing funding streams at a time when schools are experiencing massive budget cuts.
"We don't oppose reforming the system," said association spokesman Mike Myslinski. "It is clear there is problem." But, he said:
Our concern is about moving too quickly with this bill. We need adequate funding of our schools, and this legislation does not provide it. It doesn't give us the basic resources that we need in our schools to ensure that any transformation (in school funding) is a positive one, that each student has a qualified teacher, all schools are safe and clean, and all students have up to date instructional materials. All those things should be in place before we can support any major reform."
Brownley, however, thinks that this is precisely the best time to introduce reforms. She noted that her legislation will only go into effect in 2015-16, at a time when more funds should be available for schools.
We have made deep cuts to education, and I want to restore those cuts, and invest more in education. As we begin the recovery, and new monies come into the system, those monies should be distributed in a more efficient and effective way. If we continue to invest new revenues into a broken system we will never achieve the outcomes we are all looking for, which is that all children will be successful in school.
The Bay Area Council's Wunderman also thought that the current crisis argues in favor of reforms, not against them.
We are not going to improve student outcomes significantly unless you deal with the real problems that are hampering our schools' performance, and this (the school financing system) is right on the top of the list.
Brownley emphasized that her bill is a "work in progress" and simply represents the "basic architecture" for school financing reform. "I am trying to work with all the stakeholders to build a consensus and move forward," she said.