It has been eight years since I was governor. Jerry Brown has changed the California school funding formula to channel billions of dollars into the state’s most needy students.
But in 2019, government auditor Elaine Hole confirmed what critics have been saying for years: State money and local taxes set aside under this formula were apparently instead used to increase overall spending across all school districts. It was not entirely clear where the money went when it reached the districts.
Hole’s findings are backed up by a new report released this month by the Policy Analysis for California Education independent research center, which is based on the campuses of Stanford, the University of Southern California and the University of California at Berkeley, Davis and Los Angeles. The researchers also found that the lack of financial reporting prevents counties from spending extra money where it is intended and where it can do the most good.
It is time for state legislators to end this wastefulness, demand meaningful accountability, and ensure that the money is used to bring about real change. It is unacceptable that California test scores continue to lag significantly behind the national average, and that the state has failed to bridge the race and economic divide in achievement.
Brown’s original vision for solving this problem was fortunate: to spend more money on the education of the students most in need of extra help – low-income, English learners, or foster families. Since 2013, the extra money has been distributed to school districts with more of these children in need.
But from there, even experts such as PACE academics were unable to trace the money. “It was difficult for us, other researchers and stakeholders, to understand exactly how the money was spent,” the authors write.
This is because there are no rules to enforce Brown’s formula for local control. Brown has repeatedly resisted attempts to impose liability claims. And since leaving office, Governor Gavin Newsom has also shown little inclination to fight for meaningful change.
Under the funding formula, about $ 63.5 billion was disbursed last fiscal year, about 50% more than at the start of the program in fiscal 2013-14.
This formula gives school districts a base amount based on student attendance and grade levels. In addition, they receive an additional 20% for students falling into one of three needy categories. And in districts with a concentration of more than 55% of needy students, funding per student increases by 50% for each child above the 55% threshold.
It is assumed that the so-called additional and concentrated funding will be directed to provide additional assistance to these targeted children. One of the best ways to do this is to involve experienced, highly qualified teachers in the classrooms with the most children in need.
Currently, as the PACE report notes, “schools with a high concentration of disadvantaged students and students of color are often staffed by the least trained and least experienced teachers.”
The most obvious way to fix this is to offer the best teachers a salary to work in challenging schools. But it will require measures to assess teachers and pay schedules that encourage assignments in disadvantaged schools – both of which have traditionally been resisted by teacher unions.
It is easier for them and school administrators in sponsored districts to simply invest in higher wages for all teachers without addressing underlying inequalities in education. Until state legislators step in, that won’t change.
This problem has hampered the funding of California schools for eight years. It’s time to fix this.