An Education on the Education Budget

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For all of the state tax dollars being spent on California's public schools, here's a statistic that seems to show the impact of several years of budget woes: 17% of the state's K-12 funding is now money being 'borrowed' from what the state is supposed to spend on schools next year.

And the kicker: Governor Jerry Brown's budget raises that 'borrowed from the future' level to 21% of state school funding.

That's just one of several sobering statistics provided today by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office, in its report on the finances of school districts across the state.

The LAO report focuses on a recent survey sent to the approximately 1000 school districts across California to see how all of the budget cuts are impacting their operations. Although only about one-third of districts returned the LAO survey, those that did represent 58% of the state's total K-12 student population and may thus provide a reasonable glimpse into what's going on.

It comes as no surprise to hear that districts are struggling with the impact of several years worth of budget reductions.

For starters, the report reminds everyone that school districts have been trying just about anything they can to stave off cutting core classroom instruction. And most of those fixes have been temporary. Most notable was help from the feds; had Congress not stepped in with substantial stimulus funding, schools would be much worse off. The LAO says California has received a total of $7.3 billion in one-time federal help, a total that ticked upwards last year with passage of the federal Education Jobs Fund.

Schools have also done a substantial amount of their own borrowing. 75% of the districts responding to the LAO query reported using their cash reserves; 46% borrowed from special funds; 28% had to go out and borrow externally.

And perhaps most importantly, school districts tell LAO staffers that the Legislature's reprieve on education categorical spending (the time-honored practice of the state saying "Here's money and here's how you must spend it") has been crucial.

Districts tell the Leg Analyst staffers that they'd like even more loosening of the rules about categorical spending... with tops on their wish list being an easing of the K-3 class size reduction program. They'd also like, and the LAO recommends, additional flexibility on other mandates.

But the report also suggests some uneasiness on the front lines about Governor Brown's budget plan, one often promoted as offering blanket protection to K-12 schools. Tops among that is Brown's proposal to postpone even more required school funding from one fiscal year to the next -- $2.1 billion -- thus counting as a state budget "savings" while giving the schools the money their owed a few months later than expected.

(Sidenote: In a Monday morning budget hearing, top LAO K-12 analyst Jennifer Kuhn pointed out that Brown's current budget language calls for deferring money for not just a month or so, but for an entire year. Brown's budget writers said the language was only a "placeholder," thus inferring it's open to negotiation.)

The survey of school districts finds, not surprisingly, that many would respond to this new budget deferral with even more borrowing and more cuts.

The report is an interesting glimpse into what's going on in school districts around California, and comes just as some powerful school groups -- most notably the California Teachers Association -- begin to beat the drum of support for Brown's budget and his call for a statewide special election on additional tax revenues.

The question, then, is whether the governor's budget would actually hold schools harmless... or perhaps hold them as harmless as one might imagine possible in the face of a $25 billion deficit.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • Lisa

    He has to pull an Andrew Cuomo here. Taxpayers care about education. But we are tired of seeing our tax dollars support CTA’s school system creation that amounts to apartheid for low income children in urban and rural areas. Bring on much needed Education reforms that CTA fights year after year and you will see both savings and kids getting the education they need and deserve…

  • Earl Richards

    Brown’s budget proposals are ridiculous, because a few members of the opposition will not vote for the budget and Californians will not vote for higher taxes. So what is Brown’s real budget?