California School Fiscal Services
|Posted on January 29, 2015 at 5:00 AM|
The biggest comeback story in Sacramento belongs to California schools, which will see more than $6 billion in new funds next year under Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal.
But even with that infusion of money, California would still rank among the lowest in the nation when it comes to per-pupil spending.
San Diego schools chief Cindy Marten is leading an effort to change that. In a move that’s might be viewed as either gutsy or naive, she’s not waiting for the ink to dry on the governor’s education spending plan before asking for more — even if her timing makes some natural allies uncomfortable.
The San Diego Unified School District is working to build a coalition of school districts from throughout California to push for education funding “adequacy hearings” to be held in Sacramento as early as next month. The idea is to build a no-frills template showing what educators believe schools need — from class size and counselor ratios to custodians and clerical support — to be contrasted with what they can actually afford under current funding levels.
“We do appreciate that the governor is investing in education, but we do need more money,” Marten said. “We need to clearly define what adequacy looks like when it comes to funding by looking at proven strategies — school by school and district by district to paint a picture for the state. We’re number 46th in the nation by one report. We’re not asking to be the number one funded state, maybe 12th or 13? We’ll figure that out.”
But even getting the conversation started appears to be a tall order — especially when other state agencies are still smarting from a budget plan they say favors education at the expense of other critical needs.
Marten and her team have met with Sen. Marty Block and Assemblywoman Shirley Weber — both San Diego Democrats who got their political start as local school board members — to solicit support and a commitment to schedule and host a hearing in Sacramento.
Block and Weber are gingerly moving forward with the request, even as they wrestle with the timing and some of the substance.
“I appreciate and support San Diego Unified, and I think they are kind of leading the charge,” said. Block. “I don’t have any great hope that the governor will make more funds available for education right now. This gave me enough pause to not want to call this a hearing. We need to be sensitive. We want to have a conversation. We want to look to the future so we can establish some aspirational goals.”
San Diego Unified is still working to define what it believes an adequate education would look like, using research, data and evidence. It’s draft includes the arts, English leaner support and math specialists.
San Diego Unified has seen increases in test scores and its graduation rate in recent years during the state’s fiscal crisis amid steep cuts and a shortening of the school year through furlough days. In 2013, the district topped 71 other large urban districts nationwide to selected one of four finalists for the prestigious Broad Prize in Urban Education, a prize that ultimately went to Houston schools.
As with other districts nationwide, San Diego’s most vulnerable students — those struggling to overcome poverty, language barriers and disabilities — are far below their more affluent peers when it comes to academic achievement.
Weber recalls the district’s struggles with those same issues nearly 30 years ago when she was elected to the San Diego school board.
“I certainly support education and more funding for education. But I want to know what we are trying to accomplish,” Weber said. “Money is not always the key. Even if you tell me exactly how you are going to spend it, you have to tell me why.”
Weber said she told Marten she would support holding a public session of some sort to discuss the future of education funding, but only if it focuses on more than staff ratios and money.
“It has to be outcome-oriented. It’s like the African proverb, ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there,’” she said.
The debate over whether or not more money will improve California’s public education system is not new. Critics point to well-funded school systems that produce poor results — such as Detroit and Washington, D.C.
“It’s hard, frankly, to say whether something is over-funded or underfunded,” said Eric Hanushek, an education policy analyst and economist at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. “How you spend the money is much more important that what you spend.”
Hanushek doesn’t dispute that California schools could use more funding. But he believes any conversation about revamping the state education budget should include changes to the ways teachers are paid and evaluated.
“When you don’t reward teachers who are really good in the classroom, and you don’t get rid of teachers are really bad, it’s not going to fix the dreadful achievement problem in California,” he said.
School districts have until June 30 to balance their budgets. Meanwhile, the governor’s May budget revisions will offer the next update on his spending plan.
San Diego Unified does not expect to influence the governor’s latest budget proposal, nor does it want to come across as ungrateful.
“This whole thing could be scaled down,” said Martha Alvarez, the district’s director of government relations and its eyes and ears in Sacramento. “Right now education is being seen as the winner, even though what we are talking about is a long-term conversation about how to make school funding reliable and sustainable.”
The $6.4 billion in education funds for K-12 schools in the budget proposal released earlier this month includes about $2.3 billion in one-time funds, and more than $4 billion in ongoing funds to be distributed under Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula.
San Diego Unified expects to use its portion to lower class sizes in the earliest grade levels and hire more counselors. It may also be able to cut the $81 million deficit projected for its $1.1 billion operating budget in half.
Categories: California State Budget (2015-16)