If the California budget’s whopping deficit were not the Capitol’s preoccupation this year, the Legislature’s most important piece of work might have been Assembly Bill 18.
Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, said she introduced the bill to create a more rational and equitable financing mechanism for public schools.
“The current system is not logical, with district revenues that are largely a historical artifact of spending in the 1970s combined with a confusing, bureaucratic, report-driven and burdensome system of categorical programs,” the legislation declares, echoing the long-voiced conclusions of authorities inside and outside the Capitol.
The bill, however, is a shell to be filled in later — if it can be filled, given the budget squeeze, the huge financial stakes and fear among stakeholders about changes in the status quo.
K-12 education is easily our single largest public expenditure, consuming more than $40 billion a year in state and local funds to educate 6 million youngsters. And while schools enjoy broad public support, there’s a perpetual debate over whether the money is adequate and academic outcomes are acceptable.
Because the state supplies three-fourths of the money, as specified in constitutional law, school finance not only dominates the annual budget wrangle but freezes out discussion of educational policy, even though spending is only one factor affecting those outcomes.
California is well below average in per-pupil spending. But as detailed state-by-state data compiled by the New America Foundation underscore, there’s almost no correlation between per-pupil spending and learning yardsticks, such as academic test scores and high school graduation rates. Other factors, especially sociological ones, are much more important determinants of outcomes.
Tellingly, a massive Stanford University study of California schools a few years ago concluded that while they need much more money, raising spending without reforming how it is spent would be foolhardy.
How it’s spent is a hodgepodge of decades-old formulae overlaid with billions of dollars in restricted funds.
The system purports to provide equal financing, but in reality prevents resources from being concentrated where they are needed most — i.e. schools with large populations of poor and/or non-white and/or students who are not proficient in English.
Shifting money to those needs would, of course, raise the hackles of school districts that would lose even if, as some experts advise, the shifts occur from future increases in spending, rather than current revenues. And if there aren’t substantial increases in school financing — no certainty until and unless the economy improves markedly — the competition for pieces of the pie will be even more intense than it is now.
Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.