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Support growing for school finance reform

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A recent effort to reform California public school financing has stalled, but key players say there’s a growing consensus that the system needs to be simplified and made more equitable.

A bill by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, sailed through the state Assembly but faced problems in the Senate last month. Amid concerns about opposition from teachers unions and questions about a lack of specificity, Brownley pulled her legislation and converted it into a two-year bill, meaning it will be revisited in January. The bill would place fewer restrictions on how school districts can spend state money.

“I have commitments from all the stakeholder groups that they will work with me on it,” Brownley said. “I think everyone agrees that we need to reform the system. Where the concerns lie is ensuring that this is a system that does not create winners and losers.”

Brownley’s bill, AB 18, would consolidate dozens of funding streams for programs. The so-called categorical programs funnel billions of dollars to specific purposes, such as buying textbooks and providing summer school. Brownley says consolidating the funding streams would give districts more control over how they spend money.

A major opponent to the bill is the California Teachers Association, which says additional research needs to be done on how students are affected when schools have more spending flexibility.

“We think that it requires more vetting and more working through a lot of the details,” said Sandra Jackson, an association spokeswoman. “What programs would be affected? And how would it impact students?”

There’s been an ongoing debate for years over how to improve California’s complex school funding system. Numerous studies have been conducted on the issue. One report released this summer by the Public Policy Institute of California calls for greater uniformity and flexibility in spending.

In its report [PDF], issued in May, the San Francisco-based think tank applauded the state Legislature’s move in 2009 to ease restrictions on about $4.5 billion in revenue previously limited to categorical programs. But the Legislature’s provisions are temporary – when the law expires in 2015, the funding will revert back to the previous system.

The institute recommended establishing criteria to determine which programs should be included in the flexible spending and distributing that money more equally to schools.

“It’s hard to explain why school districts receive different amounts, even when they are serving similar students,” said Margaret Weston, author of the institute’s report.

She added that if school districts have more control over the money, parents and community members could have more opportunities to provide input.

The challenge is coming to an agreement on which programs will continue to receive a designated funding source and which will fall under the flexible revenue that districts can spend as they choose.

Roughly 20 percent of state education funding comes from the categorical programs. And yet, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office has stated [PDF] there is scant evidence to show that the programs achieve their intended purpose.

“From the research, there is a consensus that the system is overly complex and could benefit from more transparent and more flexible funds,” Weston said.

Filed under: K–12, Daily Report

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