A Fairer Way to Fund Schools
By Christopher J. Steinhauser
Hanging on the wall just outside my office here at the Long Beach Unified School District is a framed, yellowing copy of a budget for a local grammar school from 1913. Created with pencil and ruler, the budget is a simple ledger of revenue and expenditures. It takes up just one page.
Somewhere between 1913 and 2013, school finance in California became a whole lot more complicated. School spending has been tightly controlled by the state through more than 40 well-meaning categorical aid programs, layered one upon the other over the years in order to meet specific needs of specific groups of students.
Some of the programs are duplicative or contradictory and all come with rigid spending and reporting requirements, often leading to inefficiency and waste at a time when schools can least afford them. Worse, these programs have failed at what they set out to do – create equity in school funding and close the achievement gap that leaves students in poverty and English learners lagging behind.
And, while the state has provided districts temporary relief from most of these requirements, that flexibility is about to expire.
Gov. Jerry Brown is providing a historic opportunity to realize the equity, transparency and local control that our public schools need. Discussions on this issue began last year when the governor presented a new finance model as part of his proposed budget. Since then, the governor’s staff has spent a lot of time reworking the proposal to address issues that were raised with the initial proposal so that it now stands a real chance of passage by the Legislature.
Now is the time for the state to adopt and implement what Gov. Brown is calling the “Local Control Funding Formula.”
The new formula would bring significant additional revenue to Long Beach Unified while providing greater flexibility as to how those funds are used. The governor’s proposal would replace the current model of funding schools with a more streamlined formula and remove most spending restrictions. As a result, the majority of currently required categorical activities – including purchasing instructional materials, conducting professional development and providing supplemental instruction – would instead be left to the discretion of individual school districts. Long Beach and other school districts have long sought such funding flexibility.
The new funding formula would begin in the 2013-14 school year and implemented over seven years. The current projection is that Loing Beach Unified would receive about $365 more per student in 2013-14 than in 2012-13, and about $4,800 more per student over the next seven years. The seven-year increase amounts to a 77 percent boost in funding here, which would help reverse the damage inflicted to schools by billions of dollars in state funding cuts in recent years.
One reason Long Beach would get additional funds is that the new formula provides resources for school systems that have large populations of students living in poverty, and/or large numbers of students whose primary language is not English. That’s because it truly takes more resources to educate students whose families don’t speak English or are having trouble making ends meet.
About 70 percent of Long Beach Unified’s students qualify for free and reduced price meals because of their family income and about 25 percent of students are categorized as English Language Learners.
While some opponents have attempted to characterize the plan as one that pits wealthier school districts against poorer ones, no school under the governor’s plan would lose money regardless of their location or student population — and most will receive more.
The governor’s proposal also includes stringent accountability measures requiring school districts to document how they plan to educate their students.
While we’ll never return to the simplicity of that 1913 budget, we can take a more rational approach that provides flexibility and recognizes students’ unique needs. In turn, school districts can effectively address persistent gaps in student achievement.
For all Californians, that’s a formula for success.
Christopher J. Steinhauser is superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District.
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