Education Funding

Calif. Law Gives Schools New Spending Flexibility

By Joetta L. Sack — October 12, 2004 4 min read
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California leaders are hailing a new law that gives school administrators more control over the state money they receive as a historic development.

Administrators, though, aren’t sure that they’ll see much difference.

James A. Fleming

The plan, which Gov. Arnold Schwarze negger signed into law Sept. 29, consolidates 26 existing categorical programs into six block grants, totaling $1.8 billion. The state’s K-12 education budget is about $39 billion.

The move will give struggling districts more discretion over how they spend state funds included in the grants. Local school officials have called for such a measure for years, and several governors have pledged to provide more flexibility. But over the years, numerous attempts have been rejected by state legislators, who wanted to protect targeted programs they had sponsored.

Because of those past failures, Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, called the recent shift a “landmark day for California’s students” as he signed the bill.

State Secretary of Education Richard J. Riordan, who was appointed by the governor, hailed the measure as “the most comprehensive education funding reforms in recent history.”

Other officials and administrators, however, agreed that the term “landmark” was an overstatement, even as they acknowledged that they were happy with the new law.

“It is a large step in the right direction,” said James A. Fleming, the superintendent of the 50,300-student Capistrano Unified district. “It provides some flexibility, although not all that we wanted.”

“The combination of these actions will create a good deal of flexibility for local school districts in terms of being able to move money around between and among programs in an appropriate way to fit the local priorities,” added Kevin Gordon, the executive director of the California Association of School Business Officials.

California’s elected superintendent of public instruction, Jack O’Connell, also supported the plan, said his spokesman, Rick Miller. “Anyone who looks at California’s system of school financing would have to agree that change is needed, certainly,” said Mr. Miller.

The new law consolidates the 22 programs, which include a variety of specific efforts related to matters such as school safety, teacher professional development, and dropout prevention, into the six block grants for broader purposes.

Districts will still be required to use the block grant money for the general purposes of the more specific programs. For instance, money from an anti-smoking program will still have to be spent for student health programs.

Gov. Schwarzenegger had proposed a much farther-reaching consolidation plan in his State of the State Address last winter. That plan would have consolidated the 22 programs into one fund and given districts much greater control. But there was little support in the Democratic-controlled legislature for that plan.

Sen. Deirdre Alpert, a Democrat, was the chief sponsor of the plan that eventually made it to the governor. Mr. Gordon called it her “crowning achievement,” as she is retiring after this year because of term limits. She has been a state senator for nearly 12 years.

Many lobbyists were not sure if the governor would sign the compromise bill, until he picked up his pen.

Legislative Developments

In other legislative news, Mr. O’Connell, the state superintendent, is hopeful that the governor will soon appoint members to a new Quality Education Commission, which was authorized in 2002 but has not yet been funded.

The long-awaited commission, which is to be overseen by Mr. O’Connell, is to conceive and recommend a school finance model based on the panel’s findings and recommendations on how much it should cost for each student to meet the state’s academic standards.

Gov. Schwarzenegger also signed a bill that reduces the penalties for districts that violate the prescribed 20-student class-size limit in the state’s class-size-reduction program for grades K-3. Many administrators say districts are doing away with the popular program because it is too expensive to maintain, and the law is so strict that they risk losing all their funding if they underestimate the number of teachers needed to maintain the lower class sizes.

Many administrators were hoping that the legislature would add some flexibility to the program, such as allowing districts to use an average of 20 students instead of a strict cutoff—an option that is popular with school officials, teachers, and parents.

The governor also signed several bills to comply with the recent settlement of the Williams v. California school finance lawsuit, which was brought on behalf of needy students by several civil rights groups. (“With $1 Billion Pledge, Calif. Settles Lawsuit,” Sept. 1, 2004.)

Those bills appropriate $800 million for school facilities repairs, put an end to short school calendars in overcrowded schools, and require the placement of qualified teachers in low-performing schools.

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