Those Little Pots of Money

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Santa Catalina School kids jumproping

Santa Catalina School

California's school funding system is bewilderingly complex, even for educators and policy makers. And decisions affecting the state's 6 million students are mostly made in Sacramento. But that could be changing, as The California Report's education reporter Ana Tintocalis reports Thursday.

School finance has been shaped by four decades of piecemeal policy changes, including court mandates (including the Serrano and Williams decisions) and voter initiatives (such as Proposition 13 and Proposition 98).

It is also constrained by numerous pots of "categorical" funding which school districts must spend on efforts mandated by the state, including student assessment and child nutrition, class size reduction and foster youth programs.

Traditionally, those little pots of money have accounted for about a third of the dollars that flow to California's roughly 1,000 school districts. Two years ago, grappling with a crippling budget shortfall, the legislature cut the cash in those pots by about 20 percent but gave school districts much more freedom (at least for a few years) in how they spend the money in about 40 pots. Still, roughly $10 billion of state money remains in about 20 required funding pots.

That's emblematic of a school funding system that remains driven by the state, rather than local communities, as education reporter Ana Tintocalis explained on Wednesday.

At an education budget summit at UCLA called by Gov.-elect Jerry Brown in December, one school superintendent after another stood up and applauded policy makers for giving districts more control over how they spend their money. Facing a budget crisis, they want more money to work with. But they also asked for even more flexibility.

Those state-mandated programs may be well intentioned. But critics say they aren't in tune with the unique needs of students in individual districts. And they say the programs often don't improve academic achievement.

Now a little-known school district may be paving a new path. The Twin Rivers Unified School District near Sacramento is part of a pilot project that allows parents, teachers and principals at individual schools to have much more control over how they spend the state dollars.

And, as Tintocalis describes, that model could go statewide under a bill authored by Democratic state Assemblywoman Julia Brownley. The bill, AB 18, would streamline school funding, reducing the number of special pots and giving districts much greater control over how their budgets.

That's a step toward the overhaul of California school funding that a group of high-powered education experts recommended a few years ago. If the school funding system is made simpler, parents and community members might actually become more engaged. And if that happens -- who knows? -- our kids might as well.

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Comments (4)

  1. James Cisney says:

    I thought this was a great piece. There hasn’t been enough attention brought to the issue of the complexity of our tax code as it relates to school funding and how that inhibits public understanding and public participation. Now can you also tackle the subject of real estate taxation? That’s another area where there is little public understanding of the bewildering number of real estate related taxes and how that revenue is dispersed to the state, the counties and the cities. Talk about complexity! We need to get our legislators to stop focusing on creating new legislation and begin thinking about how to simplify and consolidate laws and tax policies. Not only would this benefit democratic practice, but it would also allow monies to be spent elsewhere other than expanding the number of technocrats, analysts and bureaucrats that are necessary to create and implement the incredible and often conflicting array of legislation that has been created over many years. As a government worker, I am all too familiar with the issues related to this.

    • Tyche Hendricks says:

      Thanks for your input James. We’ll be exploring school finance further in coming months, to help make this complicated topic clear for Californians. And yes, we will also tackle property taxes and Proposition 13. You’re right, the complexity of our taxing and spending policies can short-circuit public understanding and participation. We’re looking to make sense of it all so Californians can more easily engage with their government.

  2. To learn more about the Twin Rivers pilot program and a similar project underway in Los Angeles Unified School District, please visit

    To implement and evaluate its finance reform pilot program, Twin Rivers USD partnered with the American Institutes for Research, Pivot Learning Partners, and Los Angeles Unified School District to create a project called Strategic School Funding for Results (SSFR). With the ultimate goal of improving the level and distribution of both teacher effectiveness and student learning opportunities, SSFR was designed to (a) develop and implement more equitable and transparent strategies for allocating resources within each district; (b) link those strategies to policies and processes designed to encourage innovation, efficiency, and teacher effectiveness; and (c) strengthen accountability for improving student outcomes.

    The story incorrectly mentions that Twin Rivers is “a guinea pig in education finance reform under a state pilot project.” The “state pilot project” mentioned is, in fact, the SSFR project which is being funded by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Institutes of Education Sciences, and the Ford Foundation.

    While SSFR is directed at reforming the way school districts allocate resources internally, Assembly Bill 18 (AB18) , sponsored by Assemblywoman Brownley, has been proposed to reform the state school finance system – the way the state allocates and distributes funds to schools. AB18 is designed to consolidate many categorical programs and simplify the way schools are being funded in California, and it is very consistent with the approach taken by SSFR on funding schools within local education agencies.

    • Tyche Hendricks says:

      Dear friends,

      Thank you for taking note of our story on efforts to reform school financing in California. We did indeed highlight the pilot program at Twin Rivers Unified School District and we’re pleased that you are providing a little more background information for readers here about your “Strategic School Funding for Results” program.

      Your quibble with the words Ana Tintocalis used to describe the program in her story on The California Report gets down to an awfully fine level of hair-splitting, though. She described the effort in Twin Rivers as existing “under a state pilot project” and I believe that’s accurate. The pilot project is not state-funded, which I think is your concern, nor did we didn’t call it a “state-funded pilot project.” It IS a “state pilot project” in that it’s taking place at several locations in California, so it’s not a national project nor simply a local one. Not only that, as Tintocalis explained it to me, the school districts involved had to obtain waivers from the state government permitting them to participate.

      Again, thanks for your interest in our story.