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Jerry Brown's Next Trick in California: Weighted School Funding

In my story on the state fiscal outlook for K-12 in 2013, I mentioned that even with the passage of Proposition 30 in California, the school funding outlook in the Golden State wouldn't instantly go from rancid to rosy. But that's not the only conundrum facing Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, and state lawmakers in the next year. A nice article by Kevin Yamamura in the Sacramento Bee on Dec. 26 highlights the class divide between relatively rich and poor districts that could become a controversial topic next year.

In simple terms, Brown wants to create a weighted student-funding formula that would provide more cash to districts that have an outsized share of "disadvantaged" students, which in practical terms means those coming from relatively poor households or those with English-language-learner status. The funding "weight" given to districts would jump significantly for those districts that have more than 50 percent of their students falling into the "disadvantaged" category. Brown actually came out with two versions of his weighted funding formula in 2012, and in the second one, while the weight given to disadvantaged students compared with non-disadvantaged students actually declined somewhat, the same formula gave additional weight for students in grades 9-12, as well as lesser weight to those students in grades 7-8 and K-3. (Students in grades 4-6 received no additional funding weight in Brown's proposal.)

The Public Policy Institute of California ran a model of both Brown's original and revised weighted funding proposals. As you can see, the revised proposal actually gave less additional money per student to poorer districts than his original plan, but unified districts consisting of 80 to 100 percent of students who were disadvantaged would get an additional $3,520 per student on average, compared with the $1,800 in additional money in per-student funds than those districts consisting of only 0 to 20 percent disadvantaged students. In practical terms, that also meant that in Brown's revised proposal, 60 percent of students attended districts that would see revenue gains of 30 to 50 percent.

"The original proposal channeled proportionally more revenue to districts with high percentages of disadvantaged students. This is still true with the revised proposal, but the differences are smaller among districts with different levels of student disadvantage," the authors wrote in the PPIC paper.

With the assumption that Brown once again pushes for weighted funding in 2013, the proposal has the backing of folks like Michael Kirst, as Yamamura notes in his story—not surprisingly, since Kirst (the state school board's president) essentially came up with the idea in a paper four years ago. But what do skeptics say?

For those districts that won't see the kind of weighted funding boost as their poorer cousins, they are trying to put California's situation in a national context, not a rich vs. poor one. California, says one superintendent in Yamamura's story whose district would get less per-student state funding than a poorer neighboring district. That district still funds its schools below the national average (again, on a per-student basis).

"The concern out there is that there's a problem with winners and losers," Conejo Valley Unified School District Superintendent Jeffrey L. Baarstad told Yamamura. "Everyone has been a loser the last five years. Even though someone like me absolutely agrees with putting money behind (low-income) kids, at the same time I want to rebuild my district, too."

In theory, at least, wealthier districts contain a higher number of people subject to the new higher tax rates on wealthier residents approved under Proposition 30. Those folks might also be disappointed to learn that their new tax rates, whether they voted for them or not, may benefit other public schools at the expense of the ones in their neighborhoods.

Weighted funding has been tried by an increasing number of large school districts, including in Boston, Denver, and Baltimore, as my colleague Christina Samuels has outlined.

But the idea also has national critics, including Eric Hanushek, who characterized his skepticism of weighted funding in Education Next magazine, essentially, by calling it overly optimistic: "The added dollars from the weighted student funding seldom empower them [schools] to make choices that improve the quality of teachers. As a result, the benefit of additional funding in a world where the quality of teachers is unrelated to the salary of individual teachers is murky at best."

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