by Rachel Reeves & Esther Kang
California has a problem. For decades, a state with the twelfth largest economy in the world has been unable to find a way to fund education at even the baseline levels California legislators previously enacted into law. In the wake of the recession, per pupil funding in California has, by some estimates, dropped to 49th in the United States.
Local school districts have slashed millions from their budgets, resulting in larger class sizes, program reductions, and employee layoffs. The Manhattan Beach Unified School District has endured a 22 percent funding decrease, requiring several rounds of cuts that cumulatively added up to an $11 million reduction in its annual budget. Redondo Beach Unified School District has likewise made more than $12 million in cuts, and this year faces a gaping $13 million budget deficit.
As the recession waned and state coffers grew, local school leaders hoped to finally breathe a sigh of relief. For the first time in six years, lost funding would be restored. Educators could start thinking ahead and building programs rather than facing more hard choices over what would be eliminated.
Now, they are devastated by Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed budget, which will radically revamp the way the state funds public education.
Brown is presenting before the legislature the first balanced budget in six years, which provides for an additional $4 billion in school funding. The budget lends school districts greater control over how they spend state money, but also changes the criteria that determine how much they receive.
While some officials are hailing Brown’s proposal as a progressive way to fix an inequitable system, others – like many in the Beach Cities – believe it will be a disaster.
Brown’s plan, known as the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), earmarks the lion’s share of state education dollars for districts with larger populations of low-income students, foster youth, and English learners. While the new formula does not immediately reduce current base funding levels, it provides for “concentration grants” to those districts whose disadvantaged student population exceeds 50 percent.
Brown has vowed to fight tenaciously for his proposal. At a press conference last week, he described it as “a cause” and promised its opponents “the battle of their lives.”
“This is a matter of equity and civil rights,” he told reporters. “The question is, do we want to try to take care of the biggest challenge facing California, and that’s the two-tier society?”
Urban school districts will largely benefit. Locally, for example, Centinela Valley will gain $2,158 per student, Long Beach will gain $1,070, and Los Angeles Unified $481.
Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy was among the superintendents who appeared beside Brown at the press conference last week.
“With the Governor’s Local Control Funding Formula, students with the greatest need would receive the greatest support,” Deasy told reporters. “Now is our chance to make progress towards the promise of equal opportunity, which is why I fully support the Governor’s proposal.”
Opponents see it differently. Wealthier areas, like most Beach Cities districts, will ultimately receive less funding per student than they would under current state requirements. By the time the formula is fully implemented in 2019, local districts will have taken what amounts to another long-term budget cut. Relative to the existing funding formula, per pupil funding will be cut by $1,896 in Redondo Beach, $1,701 in Manhattan Beach, $1,848 in El Segundo, $1,834 in Hermosa Beach, and $1,175 in Palos Verdes.
In the Beach Cities, the new formula will not restore education to pre-recession funding levels, though it will engender a small boost in funding relative to recent, recessionary years.
Local educational leaders take issue with the prospect of a new system emanating from Sacramento that favors some districts over others, especially during a time when their districts are still gripped in the vices of a recession.
“The Governor’s plan pits school districts against one another,” said Redondo Beach Unified School District Superintendent Steven Keller. “It pits superintendents against one another. I think California is better than this. And we are better than this – a system that creates winners and losers, when every kid should be a winner in the state of California, whether from Redondo or some painfully low income part of town.”
Education officials in relatively well-off areas believe the LCFF is robbing Peter to pay Paul.
According to this perspective, “winning districts” would include Los Angeles Unified, Compton, Fontana, Garden Grove, Long Beach, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Ana, Bakersfield and Stockton.
Some of them could receive up to a 70 percent increase in funding under the LCFF, in what the Parent Leadership Action Network is calling “a massive victory for educational justice.”
A number of other organizations, including Children Now, the Latino Community Foundation, Asian Business Association, PICO California, United Ways of California, Californians for Justice, and Progressive Christians Uniting – Los Angeles are firmly advocating for the passage of Brown’s proposal.
Amongst the public officials supporting the LCFF are Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and superintendents from districts like San Francisco, Pasadena, San Jose, Sacramento, Oakland, Long Beach, and San Diego County.
In addition, of the 1,705 adults surveyed by the Public Policy Institute of California between April 2 and 9, 71 percent support the LCFF.
But there are many educators who are fighting tooth and nail to defeat it. They believe Brown’s proposal is full of holes and inherently unfair. “Losing districts” under the LCFF would include the Beach Cities, Anaheim, Capistrano, Chino, Chula Vista, Glendale, Irvine, Montebello, Pomona, San Jose, San Ramon Valley, and Temecula.
These districts argue their schools are still hurting from massive funding cuts since 2007-2008 and they foresee the LCFF making their road to financial recovery longer and more arduous.
RBUSD’s Keller wants the state to restore pre-2007 funding levels before overhauling the way it distributes monies amongst districts.
“I don’t think any superintendent in the South Bay would disagree that English learners and foster kids, they need a little more funding… but just not at the expense of our kids,” Keller said. “The fact that the governor is not taking a compromising position is appalling. It really is.”
Keller said he understands the other side of the coin, having worked for over a decade in the lower-income districts of Baldwin Park and Rancho Cucamonga.
“I know poverty. I worked there, I lived there,” he said. “I am as sensitive as anybody on this issue, but suburban kids, middle class kids – they have needs, too. Low-income kids, certainly, they have layers of needs but you know what? Redondo kids, Manhattan kids, Torrance kids [have] needs too.”
Keller stressed that the losers in this reduced funding scenario locally will be the children themselves.
“It means fewer staff, fewer books, fewer supplies,” he said. “After five years already of pain and suffering… Why? The Governor is saying ‘Bring it on’ – which, I mean, is criminal, absolutely criminal for him to make this the shining example of his governorship. Nobody is saying poorer kids don’t need more money. They do. But let’s get back to our base funding from 2007, and then start throwing your brilliant ideas around.”
California’s education financing system has been patched together over time. Today, it is complicated web of court judgments and voter initiatives that even experts admit is convoluted and difficult to understand.
Samantha Tran, Director of Education Policy for national non-partisan research and advocacy organization Children Now, called the state’s current system “unwieldy.”
“It’s like getting resources in gift cards. You might get a gift card for your local store but you might not necessarily have the resources to buy meat and vegetables because of the way the gift card is structured,” she said. “Over time the state has prioritized investing in high-needs kids but also they’ve done this in an irrational way so it hasn’t been systemic over the years.”
Tran said the current system is mechanically-administered and ignores actual student needs.
“The way the state funds schools is they set out a revenue limit for the general purpose dollars that’s not necessarily linked to students,” she said. “It’s more a historic formula based on different patterns and what’s happened over time is we’ve tried to equalize it and to make it more equal between districts but we’ve never actually fully achieved that.”
In 1978, voters passed Proposition 13 (known as the People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation), which imposed a cap on property tax increases and de-localized property taxes as a funding source for education. The proposition came in the wake of a California Supreme Court decision that found a property-tax funded public educational system unconstitutional in that it did not provide poorer areas with equal opportunity. The idea was that wealthier areas could better fund their schools.
The upshot of Prop. 13 was that the state took control over the financing of public education. The unintended consequence was that it tied school funding to the vicissitudes of the state’s economy. When the economy prospered, schools were funded; when the economy went into a tailspin, educational funding was inevitably cut.
Most researchers agree that Prop. 13 is responsible for California’s plummet to 49th in the nation in terms of per pupil spending. To address that underfunding problem, voters in 1988 passed Proposition 98, which requires roughly 40 percent of the state’s general fund to be earmarked for education.
Funding per pupil in the state reached its highest point since Prop. 13 in 2007-2008, but even at that peak Sacramento was spending about $750 less per pupil than the national average.
Since then, education spending statewide has since decreased by a whopping 15 percent, and as a result, school districts have been forced to lay off teachers and staff, enlarge class sizes, and cut programs.
Last year, voters passed Proposition 30 to temporarily increase statewide sales tax by a quarter of a cent as a means for raising revenues for education. Beach Cities district officials fought hard to support that initiative, but many feel that the LCFF will, to some extent, lessen the positive impact of that action.
Keller said many education officials would not have supported Prop. 30 if they’d known about the LCFF.
“If people had known he was going to play bait and switch – if he’d fully disclosed on the front end – Prop. 30 would not have passed,” Keller said. “He knew. But he waited.”
About 230 districts statewide are expected to be on the losing end of the LCFF, and the Beach Cities are among them.
Redondo has 8,100 students, 21.5 percent of whom are eligible for free- and reduced-price lunches and 6.6 percent of whom are English learners. Last year, each pupil received $6,735 in so-called Average Daily Attendance (ADA) revenue allocation. LCFF will mean that each student, in five to seven years’ time, receives an ADA allocation $8,820. If the current funding structure LCFF would replace remains intact, he or she will receive $10,716 in the same year. Both formulas are intended to factor in inflation.
“We’d be better off than we were a year or two ago,” Keller said of RBUSD. “It would be better than it was, but it’s going to be much better for many more districts in the state than for my district. It’s winners and losers and there’s no in-between on this….There’s going to be some districts in the state that will bump up to 42nd [in the nation for per pupil spending]. Now California is 49th, but [LCFF] will mean districts like mine are still going to be at 49th, whereas others would bump up.”
“The upshot of all this is that we can have districts that receive twice as much per ADA as we do with no accountability,” said Janet Redella, RBUSD’s chief business official.
She stressed that the new formula would not restore funding to previous base levels, even though both funding scenarios are an improvement on the drastically slashed budgets of recent years.
“We’ve all agreed that there are students with greater needs, and those students with greater needs should be given extra funding,” Redella said. “But we need an adequate base, and we need accountability for the extra funding that districts will receive to ensure they are spending those dollars on those needy students.”
The story would be similar for Hermosa Beach.
Of Hermosa’s student population of 1,256, 2.6 percent is low-income and 0.4 percent struggles with English. Last year, a Hermosa student received $5,985. If the current system continues, that student will receive $9,697 in 2019-2020; if Brown’s proposal passes, that same student will receive a projected $7,863 in the same year.
“Our students are deserving and work hard… and all students should be considered in terms of the formula for that funding,” Hermosa Beach City School District Superintendent Patricia Escalante said, adding the LCFF will be detrimental for her students.
Manhattan Beach Unified School District, which last year ended in a deficit of $1.1 million, would lose $1,701 per student at the full implementation of LCFF. Under the current system, MBUSD’s per-pupil amount would reach $10,013 by the 2019-2020 academic year, according to the Department of Finance. But under LCFF, that amount is projected at $8,312.
Of the 6,422 students enrolled in MBUSD, 148 students—or 2.3 percent—are eligible for free or reduced lunch prices; 58 students—or 0.9 percent—are English learners.
El Segundo would also be a “loser,” although of its 3,109 students, 11.6 percent are low-income and 5.7 percent are English learners. Last year, an El Segundo pupil received $6,511. If and when the LCFF is fully implemented, that student will in six years’ time receive $8,612 per year, rather than the $10,460 he or she would receive under the current system in the same year.
The Palos Verdes school district caters to 11,572 students, 2.6 percent of which are low-income and 6.2 of which are English learners. Last year, a Palos Verdes student received $5,901. Under the LCFF, a Palos Verdes student would get $8,429 in 2019-2020, whereas he or she would get an annual $9,594 under the current system.
“I talk a lot with my colleagues in the South Bay and we’re all looking at it pretty much in the same way that in this mix we are really the losers,” said Walker Williams, superintendent of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District.
Even for wealthier districts like Palos Verdes, making ends meet has been difficult, Williams said. The district, like any other, has weathered layoffs and cutbacks since the recession, leaning more heavily on its PTA, the Peninsula Education Foundation and the Palos Verdes Art Center to fill in many of the program gaps that were created.
“All of those groups working together have done a lot of work, but it doesn’t make up for the shortfall the state has given us in the last few years,” Williams said. “We’re hearing the state is coming out of a bad period of time and it appears they’ll have more money to spend, but it always takes about a year or two to catch up. So we’re still looking next year at having to make additional reductions in order to make all of this work.”
Also firmly opposed to the LCFF is Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, who represents California’s 66th Assembly District, which comprises the cities of Gardena, Hermosa Beach, Lomita, Harbor City and Harbor Gateway, Manhattan Beach, Palos Verdes Estates, Rancho Palos Verdes, Redondo Beach, Rolling Hills, Rolling Hills Estates, Torrance, and the unincorporated areas of El Camino Village and West Carson.
“I’m concerned that the governor’s Local Control Funding Formula is creating winners and losers amongst school districts, with most South Bay districts being on the losing end,” Muratsuchi said in an interview last week.
As a member of the Assembly’s budget committee, Muratsuchi is pushing for an across-the-board increase in statewide base funding levels. He acknowledges that California’s current school funding system is “illogical and unequitable,” but does not believe Brown’s proposal is the right answer.
“I want to emphasize that as a former South Bay school board member, I recognize that disadvantaged student populations may require greater resources, but I’m concerned that the Local Control Funding Formula does not recognize that all school districts have been devastated by state budget cuts in the past five years,” Muratsuchi said.
“And on top of that, we need to keep the big picture in mind: that California is 49th in the nation in per pupil spending. So I’m fighting to: number one, restore all the budget cuts that have been made… and two: to bring up the funding for all school districts so that we can at least get California up to the state average before we start talking about a significant redistribution of state education dollars.
One of the aspects of the LCFF proposal that few oppose is its emphasis on local control. Districts have sought greater control over their funding since Prop. 13 essentially eviscerated it, and the governor’s proposal allows districts to spend so-called “categorical” funds – those received outside of ADA, usually earmarked for very specific needs – as they see fit.
But Muratsuchi said greater control over less money largely misses the point.
“On the positive side, the governor is trying to simplify the way schools are funded,” Muratsuchi said. “But the way in which he’s trying to simplify it is basically by taking money away from suburban school districts and giving more to urban school districts. So the governor is saying that everyone is going to get more money – but if you actually look at the numbers, it’s only more money relative to what they received in this school year, which is the lowest point after five years of devastating cuts. We want to get all of our school districts back to where they were before the Great Recession, when the 25 percent cuts kicked in in 2008-2009.”
Muratsuchi is also concerned that the LCFF lacks a monitoring mechanism to ensure “winning” districts do in fact divert their extra funding toward disadvantaged students and not, for example, toward teacher salary schedules.
“It’s the flipside of greater local control that more monies can be given to school districts with larger populations of disadvantaged students but there’s very little being proposed in terms of ensuring that the dollars actually are used to serve the disadvantaged students,” he said.
Redondo’s superintendent voiced the same concern.
“Those dollars can be spent on kids, which would be ideal, or they can go into teacher salaries,” Keller said. “Those winning districts would eventually, over a period of time, over multiple years, have a far superior funding model so they would be able to establish a greater salary schedule for their staff. They’ll have more money to hire people, and more to pay people. You’ll have people applying for jobs and saying, ‘Hey, I can make five or ten more grand over there.’ And you can’t blame them because they’ve got to put food on the table.”
Tran’s organization, Children Now, counters that the state should necessarily be investing in teachers in low-income districts to raise the educational bar.
“This is a human endeavor, so investing in teachers may not be a poor investment depending on the community and the circumstance,” she said.
Also advocating for the restoration of pre-2007 funding levels is a group of 14 Manhattan Beach educators and representatives, who took their annual advocacy trip to Sacramento in March with a new sense of urgency.
The MBUSD advocacy group comprised three Board of Trustees members and mothers in the Manhattan Beach Education Foundation (MBEF) and the PTA.
They made a plea to Capitol Hill’s lawmakers to bring funding levels back to the pre-recession era for all students before introducing supplementary funding programs.
“We are all for supplementing children that have needs; there’s nobody who says that’s not the case,” said Leanne Huebner, a Pennekamp Elementary mom and PTA council legislative representative.
Huebner, who has been spearheading a letter-writing campaign to Gov. Brown, argues that despite the overall affluence of the Manhattan Beach community, its school district falls in the bottom quartile in per-pupil state funding. Last year, Manhattan Beach Unified received from the state just under $6,200 per student – about $1,300 less than LAUSD’s per-student level.
In a letter to Assembly member Joan Buchanan, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, Carol Kocivar, the president of California State PTA, calls the state “negligent” in its obligation of ensuring every child has access to a standard level of education.
“The proposed new funding formula – while positively directing additional resources to English Learner students, students from low-income families and foster youth, and reducing certain onerous reporting requirements on school districts– does not rectify the larger challenge faced by all students: the chronic underfunding of schools,” she wrote.
She added, “California’s public schools rank at or near the bottom in nearly every category of resources. For instance, we have the largest class sizes and the most students per counselor in the nation.”
At MBUSD, the projected long-term loss in funding looms in the midst of a budget crisis. With rising costs and decreased revenue, the district is looking at a $5 million deficit next year.
If the LCFF passes this June, Huebner said MBUSD will be forced to lean even more heavily on local revenue sources like the MBEF, which this year alone contributed $5 million in grants. She added that a parcel tax could even be considered to offset the costs.
“Parents are so supportive; we’ve been very crafty and creative for a few years,” she said. “It’s the future years that we’re concerned with … It’s more serious than ever now.”
Lawmakers gather in Sacramento to discuss a revised version of Brown’s budget on May 15. On the table are the proposed LCFF and modified versions of it, including one drafted by Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) that eliminates the “concentration grant” bonuses component.
Brown is standing pugnaciously behind his proposal.
“This is not an ordinary legislative measure,” the governor said at a Capitol news conference last Wednesday. “This is a cause. I will fight any effort to dilute this bill.”
Like Brown, Tran believes the time has come for California to make a change and to begin basing its funding on actual student demographics rather than historic formulas.
She said the LCFF rationalizes a system that for too long has ignored high-need and low-income students.
“There’s no reason for us to delay this for another year,” she said. “We’ve literally been having this conversation for 10 years and in a very substantive way for the last year and a half, with actual language before us. There’s no reason to kick the can down the road another year.”
But Redella says that’s what legislature needs: more time. She said the uncertainty clouding the horizon has made passing a budget this year – mandated by state law by the end of June – a nearly impossible task for school districts. As the battle unfolds in Sacramento, local budget officials have almost no idea what their funding will be next year.
“Four months after this proposal was introduced we still don’t have a consistent calculation of what our funding would be and that’s very troubling,” Redella said. “We’ve gone through four months and still have not progressed any more than where we were in January, so how do we turn around and adopt a budget by the end of June? As we get further along details have yet to come out and no one has actually been consistent in calculating this number. Something is very, very wrong.”
David Rosenfeld contributed to this report.