Many factors are relevant in determining how much the state should spend to provide a child with an "adequate" public education, but this is not one of them: whether the child lives in an area that was largely agricultural during the early 1970s. Yet agricultural zoning is, to this day, a significant component in the stupefyingly complicated formula that determines California's per-pupil funding. Everyone knows the formula is a mess, but for decades the Legislature did nothing to change it.
Now, taking advantage of an unusual moment in state budget history, Gov. Jerry Brown has sliced through the paralysis and reached a compromise with legislators to create an immeasurably more sensible, comprehensible and fair formula for funding schools. It could well become the great legacy of his administration.
The new, simplified formula is based almost solely on the one factor that should matter: what students need. Under Brown's plan, schools will receive a specified base payment for each student. Because disadvantaged students need more money — for preschool, tutoring, campus security and other expenses — to close the achievement gap, schools will receive 20% more for each student who is either poor enough to qualify for a subsidized school lunch or not fluent in English. There is an additional "concentration" payment for districts in which more than 55% of the students are disadvantaged, which will be of special benefit to the Los Angeles Unified School District. And the state will give local school officials more freedom to decide how the money should be spent, though there will still be a pot of additional funds for special education.
Before the recession, changing the formula would have been politically difficult at best; giving more money to some schools would inevitably have meant cutting funding for others. But almost all public schools suffered during the state's budget crisis, laying off teachers and cutting the length of the academic year. With new revenue available this year, Brown saw his moment. He could afford to give more money to all schools while at the same time pressing the restart button on the funding formula.
Brown's initial proposal, though the concept was solid, overreached by providing a full 35% for each disadvantaged student, leaving too little money to help moderate-income schools struggling to get back to pre-recession funding levels. Pressed by legislators, he has now agreed to a formula that will help districts statewide recover more quickly.
There will almost certainly be mistakes and gaps in the new formula, and both the governor and Legislature should be flexible about fixing them, rather than leaving districts gasping for help as they did in decades past under the old formula. But with his decisive and, yes, stubborn insistence on fixing what was so badly broken, Brown will have helped the state's neediest children for decades to come.