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A failing grade for public school funding

Whichever way you slice the numbers, California’s funding for public schools is nothing to cheer about. In state-by-state comparisons, its per-pupil funding falls in the middle — until you account for the higher cost of living, which puts California in 46th place. It is 49th in student-teacher ratios; only Utah fares worse. Recent cuts forced California school districts to shorten the academic year or raise class sizes or, in the case of Los Angeles Unified, do both.

The state also has a particularly dysfunctional system for distributing what money it has. Neighboring school districts with similar populations and similar needs receive markedly different sums per student, based on anachronistic funding formulas that date to the 1970s.

No one should be surprised, then, that a consortium of school groups, including the PTA and associations of school administrators and school boards, has filed suit against the state, claiming that California’s school funding is both inadequate and incoherent. The suit argues that the state is violating its Constitution by failing to set aside sufficient money for education, and it demands an overhaul of the funding mechanisms. Similar suits in other states, most notably New York — which spent thousands of dollars more per student than California even before the lawsuit was brought — have resulted in increased funding for schools.

It’s disheartening to see teachers reach into their own pockets to provide pencils or paper for their classrooms, or to see students struggle to cover a year’s worth of curriculum in a more crowded classroom with less instructional time. But as much as we’d like to see school funding increased, we’re concerned that a court ruling requiring a hike in school aid would create a host of ancillary problems. The state already suffers from too many mandates on how it spends its money, leaving too little in discretionary funding for the Legislature to meet changing needs. In fact, funding for public schools already is more protected than almost any other state function because of Proposition 98, a 1988 initiative that requires California to spend about 40% of its general fund on schools and community colleges.

Public schools certainly should be a top priority for the Legislature, which must work to safeguard California’s most vulnerable residents, including the children whose skills will determine the state’s future. The problem is that education isn’t the only public good worthy of support. The Healthy Families Program, which provides medical insurance for poor children, is even more threatened than the schools. Programs that offer shelter and other basic services for families face severe cuts. And how do we decide between more money for education or retaining healthcare aides for elderly people who otherwise could not live in their homes?

These are the difficult decisions that Californians elect the Legislature to make through a thoughtful budget process that weighs the relative value of all programs and services against the available revenue. Courts consider only one issue at a time, leaving out the legitimate needs of all other programs. Are the prisons adequately funded? The courts said no, ordering the state to either drastically reduce its prison population or spend more money — leaving less for everything else. Tying lawmakers’ hands tighter would only make the situation worse by further constraining their ability to set budgetary priorities. And what’s to stop the next lawsuit, by, say, transportation advocates or public safety advocates? What’s to stop the next court from concluding that the state is not adequately funding highways?

The lawsuit is on firmer ground with its complaint that unequal and unstable funding of schools works against the development of innovative programs to engage students and help them learn. It is wasteful and counterproductive for schools to start new initiatives and then have the money for those initiatives pulled. This is something that the education lobby as well as the Legislature must work on. Erratic funding works two ways: When the state is flush, it funds — with the enthusiastic approval of schools — grand schemes such as 20-student classes in primary grades that it is unable to maintain during tougher times. Educational programs should be built up prudently and sustainably; bigger reserves should be set aside in good times to fund those programs long into the future.

If nothing else, the lawsuit could make a major contribution to schools by prompting an overhaul of the archaic funding process. Per-pupil funding must be made more equitable from district to district, with extra money provided for certain needs such as special education or helping students who are not fluent speakers of English. Under the current crazy quilt system, dozens of the wealthiest districts in the state fall into the so-called basic aid category, giving them several thousand dollars more to spend on each student than the state average even though they have no greater needs than other districts. Other schools continue to receive money for food programs that were ended long ago. A 2009 bill by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D- Santa Monica) would have begun to fix all this by convening a working group to make sense of the funding scheme and recommend changes; Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill.

Though there are valid questions about whether schools use their money wisely, there’s no ignoring the fact that conditions at California schools compare poorly with those in other states. With more money, schools could afford additional instructional time, attract ambitious and bright people to the teaching profession, create a richer curriculum, expand vocational education and provide academic support for the students who need it most. These are worthwhile investments that Californians should demand of the Legislature when the state’s financial picture improves, but they are not best made by court order.


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