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What Does the New California Budget Mean for Schools, Students?

California lawmakers have approved a $96.3 billion budget that includes $55.3 billion for both K-12 schools and community colleges, and Gov. Jerry Brown, who sought and fought for a massive school finance overhaul this year, must sign a budget before the new fiscal year begins July 1. I wrote about the evolving budget plan from Brown, a Democrat, in a recent issue. This compromise was worked out in negotiations between legislators and Brown's office, so the core pieces of it should remain intact when Brown signs it. But how did it turn out for schools?

It's tough to top the always-helpful EdSource's reporting on the issue—you can check out their interactive graphic, which includes budget highlights, as well as John Fensterwald's catch-all piece about the way K-12 funding will work starting next year.

The part of Brown's proposal that generated perhaps the most attention was his plan to target more funding on "high needs" students, specifically English-language learners, low-income students, and foster students, through a new Local Control Funding Formula. Once fully implemented over seven years, districts would get an additional 35 percent in "supplemental" per-pupil funding on top of the base grant (about $6,800 per student on average), and districts with over 50 percent of students who fit one of those demographics would get an additional "concentration" per-pupil grant.

How did those numbers change in the formula? Well, the plan will still target those high-needs groups, but not to the extent that Brown and others may have wanted. The base grant got a $537 boost from Brown's plan, and that money will be going to all students, according to Fensterwald. The supplemental grant increase was cut by lawmakers from 35 percent to 20 percent, but the concentration money was boosted so that districts with higher concentrations of needy students would get about $3,600 more per student, $1,300 more than under Brown's plan. However, now districts will need 55 percent of their students to be categorized as high needs to qualify for concentration grants, not the 50-percent threshold in Brown's previous plan.

Remember, many lawmakers, including leading Democrats, expressed concern that funding increases needed to be spread more broadly, even if that meant less money for many high-needs learners. As I detailed in my story, groups like the California School Boards Association expressed a concern about districts that don't necessarily have many high-needs students but still want to get more money from the state after several years of broad, painful budget slashing.

But there remain worries, as I related in a discussion with Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, an English-learner advocate in California, about whether districts will be given too much flexibility over the use of the new targeted funds. Language governing those requirements apparently remains pretty vague in the final budget deal.

The state Board of Education is supposed to set these new spending requirements for districts in December, but until then, there's no real oversight over how districts spend the extra money in the Local Control Funding Formula, Arun Ramanathan, the executive director of the Education Trust-West, a California K-12 research and advocacy group that supported Brown's plan, told me. That will be a political challenge for district leaders, since K-12 constituencies across the board have been wandering in the budget desert for half a decade and are thirsty for cash.

"There's going to be a lot of pressure to spend the dollars in a whole host of ways," Ramanathan told me, adding that in general he was still pleased with the final K-12 budget deal.

Other highlights of the budget for next year include $1.2 billion for districts to spend implementing the Common Core State Standards, and $250 million in one-time grants for career technical education.

Republicans, on the other hand, looking down the barrel of Democratic supermajorities in the legislature, were completely shut out, if you listen to California GOP Assemblyman Rocky Chavez: "To not even be involved in the process of the budget, to not even know what's in it ... I have a problem with that."

However, it's worth noting that Brown's basic plan has gotten the support of at least some conservatives, such as those at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank, as expressed in a May 31 report.

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