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California School Boards Seek Law to Simplify State's School-Aid Formula

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The California School Boards Association, together with organizations representing municipalities and counties, has proposed a state constitutional amendment that would earmark certain state taxes for local governments, provide for local overrides of property-tax limitations, and replace state categorical funding for public schools with a guaranteed base of support for each pupil.

'Still Skeletal'

The plan is "still skeletal," according to Rebecca A. Baumann, senior legislative advocate for the school-boards group, but its backers said they have lined up legislators to sponsor a bill this session to put the amendment on the ballot.

California's school districts, cities, and counties now receive money from the state's general fund, which is generated from several different taxes. "They co-mingle all the taxes and we just get what they give us," Ms. Baumann said. "Each of our groups has had to restrain the impulse to fight one another."

Under the proposed amendment, the state sales, income, and property taxes would be earmarked for local government functions. That aggregate fund would be split among cities, counties, and school districts. The mix of taxes would provide stability and some growth from year to year, Ms. Baumann said.

Allocation of State Money

The amendment would also greatly simplify the allocation of state money to school districts. Since 1978, when Proposition 13 was enacted, limiting real estate taxes to one percent of assessed evaluation, schools' dependence on state funds has grown dramatically. By last year, more than 80 percent of the average district's revenue came from the state, much of it through complex categorical formulas for such programs as bilingual and special education.

At the same time, districts began experiencing severe financial problems because of the recession.

Although its backers shy away from using the term "block grant" to describe one provision of the amendment, its effect would be to guarantee a fixed amount per pupil without taking into account the mix of special-needs pupils in a given district. Nearly all states' school-finance formulas now have at least some categorical funding features, using 'weights' to compensate for high-cost programs.

For example, if the average expenditure were set at $3,000 per pupil, and local prop-erty taxes in district A yielded $800 per pupil, the state would contribute the remaining $2,200. If local property taxes in district B yielded only $400 per pupil, the state would contribute $2,600.

While the local-government groups acknowledged that costs vary from district to district, depending on their characteristics and other factors, they say that by giving every district more money the amendment would provide adequate funds and local flexibility for all. (Most districts in California now spend between $2,100 and $2,400 per pupil, Ms. Baumann said, although some spend as little as $1,700.)

"We're suggesting that every district has its own finanical problems and high-cost factors," she said. "By giving school districts more money than they are currently receiving, this would benefit everybody."

Mandates For Special Education

Ms. Baumann also pointed out that the amendment, while eliminating categorical funding, would leave state categorical programs in place. "For instance, we're leaving the mandates for special education. That obligation would still be in place. How to meet those mandates and how to spend the money would be left entirely up to the districts."

The "political sophistication" of advo-cates for students with special needs would probably ensure that such children are treated fairly by local school boards, she added. "These groups were responsible for getting the categoricals in the first place. One has to believe that at the community level, they would be heard and recognized."

Ms. Baumann said the plan is an answer to the Serrano v. Priest lawsuit, in which the plaintiffs claim that the state has failed to equalize educational expenditures for students in wealthy and poor districts. (See Education Week, Feb. 9, 1983.)

"The state would be backing every pupil with the same amount of money," she said.

The third part of the proposed amendment--the local override on tax limitations--has received the most attention so far, Ms. Baumann said, but supporters of the amendment consider it a "minor change." The provision would permit school districts with voter approval to exceed the one-percent limit on property taxes, providing the first crack in the cap imposed by Proposition 13.

Other education groups have not yet taken public positions on the proposed amendment.

Bill Honig, the new state superintendent of public instruction, is working on his own budget and allocations scheme for the next fiscal year. Aides said his recommendation will be completed within the next several weeks.

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