The Grade Blog

Saturday, Jan 19 2013 10:30 PM

Schools watching governor's education funding proposal closely

BY COURTENAY EDELHART cedelhart@bakersfield.com

Local school districts are cautiously optimistic about a new funding formula Gov. Jerry Brown announced last week that will distribute state funds based in part on the degree to which districts serve poor students and English learners.

Brown's proposal would boost K-12 funding in 2013-14 by 5 percent, or $2.7 billion. The money would come from tax increases voters approved last fall, as well as revenue projected to come in as the economy recovers.

Some Proposition 30 money would be used to make overdue payments on funds the state already owes schools, but there also would be new money for students on free or reduced lunch, foster children and students who don't speak English.

Details of what the governor calls his Local Control Funding Formula haven't been disclosed, so districts aren't able to offer specifics on local impact.

The broad outline of the proposal has some upsides, though.

"If it actually ends up the way it's proposed, it's not too bad," said Fruitvale School District Superintendent Mary Westendorf. "It's absolutely better than cuts."

The governor's plan has to survive a vote in the state legislature, which could modify it or kill it entirely.

That's why the Kern High School District isn't celebrating even though 8.17 percent of its students are English learners and nearly half qualify for the National School Lunch Program.

"I think it's truly up in the air," said Assistant Superintendent of Business Scott Cole. "It looks like the legislature is going to tweak it, so we're going to plan on flat funding from the previous year."

Another finance overhaul the governor floated last year, at the time dubbed the Weighted Student Funding Formula, didn't go anywhere. Among other things, some critics said the effort to distribute money more equally simply stole from the rich to give to the poor.

This time, there's a minimum funding level that every school would be entitled to, but districts with certain demographics would get more.

For districts such as the Bakersfield City School District, whose student body is 89 percent free or reduced lunch and 29 percent English learners, that could be a major help.

Those students are more expensive to educate, so such districts have been devastated by drastic budget cuts that have led to layoffs and larger class sizes even in wealthy areas.

Bakersfield City School District Chief Business Official Steve McClain said the governor's proposal would be the first increase in the last five years, "so that is really positive."

The California Legislative Analyst's Office is awaiting specifics before it weighs in, but says it will review the fiscal impact of the proposal when precise figures are known.

In addition to boosting school funding, the governor's plan also removed categorical restrictions that dictated how certain state funds were to be used, giving local districts more power to set their own priorities.

"Local control is a good, strong philosophy, and we support that," said Mary Barlow, assistant superintendent at the Kern County Superintendent of Schools Office.

Affluent districts might want to funnel more resources to Gifted and Talented Education or music programs, for instance, while poorer districts may want to shore up social services and English as a second language instruction.

But Barlow worries that the minimum base -- set at 2007-08 funding levels -- is still "too low to do anything for any student."

And there's another boulder looming large over school administrators' heads.

The White House-Congressional fiscal cliff deal reached shortly after the new year didn't resolve federal education spending disagreements. If the polarized congress doesn't come up with a compromise before March, more cuts could be coming in the spring.

For BCSD, that translates to an 8 percent cut, or $2 million.

"We'd like to be able to focus less on cuts and more on student achievement," McClain said.

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