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Calif. Lawmakers Find Ways To Beat Equity Mandates

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After creating an equitable school-funding formula, California politicians have found a way to get around their own system.

Legislators have learned to use the education programs that fall outside the funding formula to steer more money to their constituents, a new report concludes.

The formula divides the bulk of the state's $14 billion in K-12 school funds with an eye toward increasing equity between wealthy and poor districts. So lawmakers interested in making sure that a larger share of the state's money winds up in their districts have found reason to assert themselves, argues Thomas B. Timar, an associate professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

Over the past two decades, the number of categorical programs--initiatives like desegregation funding, reading programs, and dropout-prevention efforts--has mushroomed. Mr. Timar's analysis of the phenomenon demonstrates how both Republicans and Democrats have embraced such programs as a way to escape the frustrating uniformity of equity.

"Insofar as Republicans represent largely suburban and rural districts, their strategy has been to devise new categorical programs that would benefit their districts,'' Mr. Timar says in his report, which was published in the summer issue of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. "Democrats, on the other hand, have fought to keep their share of categorical funding to urban constituencies from eroding.''

The result, the report concludes, is a proliferation of small state education programs. In 1980, the state had 19 such programs. By 1991, the number had jumped to 70. Their share of the state school budget more than doubled over the same time.

Further, Mr. Timar concludes, lawmakers' efforts to cash in on categorical programs are now to blame for most of the inequity that still exists.

Urban and Suburban Aid

In particular, desegregation aid has proved a boon to urban districts and a favorite of Democratic legislators.

The California program helps reimburse districts for costs stemming from either court-ordered desegregation plans or voluntary efforts. Yet, Mr. Timar says, an analysis of the program clearly shows how it helps some districts more than others.

In 1990-91, about 43 percent of the students in the Sacramento City Unified School District were black or Hispanic. In the San Francisco Unified School District, 38 percent of the students were from the same minority groups. Yet, in that year, Sacramento received $14 per student in desegregation aid, while San Francisco received $1,126, according to the report.

"Funding for desegregation is unrelated to districts' concentration of minority students,'' Mr. Timar concludes.

Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Stockton--original participants in the desegregation-aid program--have been the biggest winners.

"The success of relatively few urban districts to capture a disproportionate share of state school funding is attributable, in large measure, to benefits from centralization of the state's finance system,'' he argues.

On the other hand, suburban and rural districts have found relief in the state's supplemental grants program, an initiative that Republicans in the state Assembly were able to enact as part of a legislative compromise in 1989.

Limited Impact

When the lawmakers saw state aid going disproportionately to urban districts, the lawmakers called for a fund that would set aside some state money for districts that receive less than the state average from other categorical programs.

"This funding strategy sets a new standard in public finance for irrationality,'' Mr. Timar says.

"There is no policy rationale justifying this type of revenue other than the desire to give more moeny to suburban districts at the expense of urban districts,'' the University of California professor adds.

In the end, California finance experts note, overall funding does not stray far from the state's equalization targets.

"Nobody has gotten so much money that you could say that politics are driving the categorical programs more than the real needs of kids,'' Kevin Gordon, a lobbyist for the California School Boards Association, said in an interview.

In passing the budget for fiscal 1995 this summer, lawmakers appropriated about $500 million for desegregation aid and $179 million in supplemental grants, the same amount provided for those programs last year. The state's overall budget for K-12 education totals about $14 billion.

While the situation does not threaten the overall equity of California's school-finance program, however, it is a side effect of centralized school funding that bears watching, Mr. Timar says.

He notes that the response of lawmakers in California may signal new political tactics in addressing school-finance equity.

"Increasingly, decisions about local expenditures--how much to spend on new programs or staff development, for instance--are made at the state level,'' Mr. Timar writes.

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