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.