SACRAMENTO — California is close to making the most sweeping change in how it spends money on schools since Ronald Reagan was governor four decades ago.
And Gov. Jerry Brown is on the verge of a monumental personal triumph — a legacy builder, for better or worse. Nobody really knows.
It's an example of landmark legislating with one-party rule. The governor pretty much gets his way while being restrained by the Legislature, led by fellow Democrats.
Also credit the Legislature's ability, since 2011, to pass a budget on a simple majority vote. The backroom dealing would have been daunting if a two-thirds vote were still required.
In this case, inner-city school districts with lots of "high need" students stand to win — at the expense of suburban middle-class kids — but not as decidedly as the governor had proposed.
It's happening as part of a new state spending plan that the Legislature must pass by June 15. School funding is the big-ticket item in a budget bazaar called the Joint Conference Committee.
Legislative leaders have several things on their shopping lists.
Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) is pushing for restoration of dental care for poor people, improved mental healthcare and increased funding for career tech courses. Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) wants to increase welfare grants, expand child care and offer middle-class scholarships.
Brown's demands are more limited, but also more focused and apparently more adamant.
First, he's insisting on a low-fat balanced budget.
Second — and seemingly completing his priority list — is his school funding redistribution plan. That's his passion.
Unlike when Brown was governor in the 1970s, he has learned to focus on one issue at a time. Back then, he often had a short attention span and a scatter-gun approach.
"I have some perspective that I didn't used to have," Brown recently told about 1,000 business leaders.
"You can only have so many initiatives," he said, citing Arnold Schwarzenegger as a governor who tried to do too much. "You have to be strategic, you have to focus, and then you get it done.... I've got to handle one thing at a time."
It has paid off for what he calls his "Local Control Funding Formula," an appealing tag legitimized by his proposal to eliminate mandates for so-called categorical programs such as career tech and updating textbooks.
I call the rest of his plan "Robbing Peter to Pay Paul," because many districts — especially in the suburbs — would receive less money under his proposal than they would under the current spending formula. Their lost money would be shifted to districts — particularly in the inner cities — loaded with disadvantaged students.
Under Brown's plan, impoverished students and kids whose native language isn't English would receive an extra 35% in "supplemental" funding. Moreover, if a majority of the district's enrollment was composed of such high-need students, there would be additional "concentration grants."
Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan (D-Alamo), who heads the Education Committee, says that except for the wealthiest districts, "most suburban schools would end up being losers."
Also, under Brown's plan, according to Assembly data, roughly one-quarter of California's school districts couldn't climb back to their pre-recession spending levels before the end of the decade.
"The people I represent fully agree that at-risk children need more money," Buchanan says. "They just want to assure that there's adequate funding for their children."
Says one legislative consultant, who declined to speak publicly because he's not authorized to: "This is a civil war within the education world. It's directly pitting suburban districts against urban districts. I've never really seen anything like this."
Bob Blattner, a veteran private consultant, says: "This is the most important policy discussion of [California] public education in our generation. We are going to redo a system that goes back to Reagan.… This is a big deal."
The Senate last week passed a version of Brown's plan aimed at making it less onerous to the suburbs.
Democrats helping the suburbs? Don't they represent the inner cities? Yes. But as their numbers have grown in the Legislature to supermajority dominance, they have also spread into the 'burbs.
The Senate bill, approved with bipartisan support, would increase the base grant for every student, regardless of socioeconomic status. It would hike the supplemental grant to 40%. But it would not provide a concentration grant.
Also, the Senate bill would require that the extra money actually be spent on the high-need kids. Career tech courses would be protected. And the whole program would be delayed a year, a provision that really irks Brown.
"There would be fewer losers," says a Senate policy advisor, also speaking privately.
The Assembly, meantime, has developed a Package of Principles, but not an actual bill. Under its idea, there would be fewer concentration grants. Supplemental grants would be lowered to 25%. But if a student was both poor and an English struggler, he'd get double; not so under the governor's proposal.
It's all highly complicated.
"I'm not sure all of us understand what this means for the districts we represent," Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) admitted just before voting for the Senate bill, mainly because it funded career tech.
It means a big victory for Brown, even if he hasn't declared it yet. No legislator dares fight this governor — nor do they want to be viewed as being against helping needy kids.
But legislators are tinkering and improving the governor's historic product. That's the way it's supposed to work.