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California Education Update

January 30, 2012

California State Senator Joe Simitian represents the 11th Senate District in our state (which is where I live and work), and a couple of times each year, he hosts education town hall meetings.  These meetings provide a useful opportunity for various stakeholders in the community to hear from the Senator, and for him to hear from all of us.  Senator Simitian is a particularly good person to hear from on education issues, as he entered state politics by way of our local school board, and has been on the education committees in both houses of our legislature.  His most recent meeting was Saturday, January 28, with a crowd was slightly larger than I’ve previously seen at one of these events, probably in the range of 200-300 people.

What follows is my attempt to capture his comments and the information he provided, with occasional interjections of my own thoughts or questions in parentheses and italics.

The big theme for 2012 education funding is uncertainty, as so much depends on the fate of tax-increases going before the voters in November.  If the measure sponsored by Governor Jerry Brown passes, then funding for state education may increase by about $5 billion – but none of it will reach the classroom.  Governor Brown has proposed using any additional funding to pay down deferrals already in place in K-12.  The legislature has managed to balance budgets in past years by keeping certain programs rather than cutting them, but funding them with deferrals, a promise to pay later.  Current deferrals are in the neighborhood of 20% of the education budget.  So if the budget allows for any increased spending this year, it will probably go to “pay down the wall of debt” (Simitian attributes that phrase to Governor Brown).  It’s time to start catching up on our obligations.

The tax measure we’ll be voting on in November results from California’s two-thirds requirement on votes for new taxes.  Though the state legislature and Governor’s office are controlled by Democratic majorities, they are unable to come up with the two-thirds vote to raise taxes and bring in additional revenues.  Polling indicates that the voters are likely to support Brown’s plan, but it remains to be seen if there will be competing ballot measures with the same goal.  History and conventional wisdom suggest that competing tax measures will cancel each other out.  One of the noteworthy efforts underway is spearheaded by Kathleen Munger.   Brown’s proposal for temporary tax increases:

  • 0.5 cent sales tax (4 years)
  • 1% income tax increase for earners over $250,000
  • 1.5% income tax increase for earners over $300,000
  • 3% income tax increase for earners over $500K

Without this measure, the budget will stay on the path of further deferrals, plus a 5-6% cut.  Proposition 98 was supposed to provide a guaranteed minimum for education budgets, but when budget cuts are enacted, education takes a hit from other funding streams that do go to schools but are not covered by the proposition.  Has the proposition outlived its usefulness?  It has been around for more than a decade and is becoming less relevant.  The legislature has suspended it twice in the past several years by two-thirds vote, and the formulas are a little too flexible to provide a true guarantee.

How should districts plan their budgets in these circumstances?  After all, budgets are planned in the spring, passed in the summer, and the election is in November.  Simitian expects that will vary from district to district, with some choosing a worst-case-scenario approach to planning and others taking a chance.

Brown has also suggested simplifying the state’s school funding formula, phasing in a new approach over five years.  We have many different categorical funds, which Brown would reduce, though there would still be a weighted student formula.  There are two types of school districts in the state:  basic aid, and revenue limit.  Basic aid districts, which fund education almost entirely out of local property taxes, are likely to see significant cuts under this plan, because if categorical funds are eliminated, these districts receive almost no money from the state.  (Basic aid districts do not receive a per-pupil allocation).  Revenue limit districts may or may not benefit, depending on the profile or demographics of their student body.  If they have many students in poverty or many English language-learners, they’re likely to benefit from this approach.  If they have few, then Brown’s plan will reduce funding for them.  The goal is to stop sending as much categorical funding to places where it’s less needed.

Simitian also described plans to eliminate or suspend certain mandates from the state in order to increase district flexibility.  The state will save money by not requiring and so many mandates it can only partially fund, but the state will fully fund those state mandates that districts choose to abide by.  Special education funding and mandates are not among those being considered optional or flexible.

Senator Simitian mentioned that constituents have asked about the possibility of weighting the formula for cost of living.  Employee pay and overall cost of living varies significantly across regions, but the state formula has no allowances for those differences, and apparently will not in the foreseeable future.

Education budgets will also be affected by the elimination of redevelopment agencies (happening next month), as revenues that previously went to these agencies will in part reach school districts.  For some revenue limit districts, this will be slightly good news – not a larger budget, but less of it deferred.  For some revenue limit districts, this change will push them into basic aid status.  For basic aid districts, there may be a slight increase in funding as a portion of the money that was sent to the redevelopment agency will now go the districts.

Then Simitian brought up the topic of charter schools, though he joked that “This is the part of the meeting where I’d like to say ‘Thanks for coming!'”  Governor Brown had direct personal experience in starting and providing some direction for two charter schools when he was the mayor of Oakland, which means that he brings a bit more first-hand knowledge of the challenges in public education.  (Brown’s recent State of the State speech reflected some practical wisdom, according to Anthony Cody and Diane Ravitch).  Simitian finds the contentious debate around charters quite “disheartening.”  He is not surprised by the friction, however.  When the laws changed in the late 1990’s, the number of charter applications jumped, and right at a time when school funding was being cut due to declining enrollment, followed shortly by economic decline.  Simitian’s view: “I would like to make all charters work for all schools in all districts.”  Simitian and Assemblymember Julia Brownley proposed bills around charter management and governance last year, and managed to build some consensus around them (including the California Charter School Association).  Simitian’s bill held charters to certain academic standards.  Brownley’s bill applied the Brown Act (state law requiring open meetings) to charter schools.  Governor Brown did not support the bills.  Simitian describes Brown as someone who is hard to classify, who knows his own mind and has a wide variety of experience.  As a first year governor (again), he’s not in a rush to tackle issues in the same way as Brownley and Simitian (both termed out this year).  (I may have missed something in Simitian’s comments, but it appears these charter school bills were held over and should head back throught the legislature this year).

School transportation costs – right now, most school transportation programs have been cut or are in jeopardy due to budget cuts.  Simitian says there will be interest in revisiting this issue in legislature.

Transitional kindergarten – Simitian sponsored a law that passed in 2010, requiring incoming kindergarten students to be five years old by September 1, replacing the Dec. 2 cutoff.  In researching and proposing the law, Simitian was convinced that arguably one-quarter of students in kindergarten are too young, and as a result, we have disproportionate number of grade retentions and special education referrals for those students.  So it’s economically and educationally wise to defer their entry into school.  (With 6 million students in the state, that means 1.5 million students started too soon).  A sudden shift would mean a $700 million savings for each year that the smaller cohort moves through the system, and the state could put the money into transitional kindergarten.  In 13 years, we’ll face a question of how to fund transitional kindergarten without the undersized cohort moving through the system.  At least, that was the idea.  Governor Brown is proposing cutting funding for transitional kindergarten in order to offset other liabilities.  Simitian’s position is that the law will not change even if the funding does, and even if Brown is proposing defunding the program, it is law and it cannot be “line-item vetoed.”  He hopes Brown’s proposal will disappear soon, because the administration has not been clear enough about what they intend, and he doesn’t think they’ll be able to go through with it.  We’ll end up with months’ worth of unnecessary stress and debates. (The situation has caused some serious disruptions in districts – including San Francisco Unified; you can read more on the issue at TOP-Ed).

Question from audience: revenue limit districts suffer more from deferrals than basic aid districts; isn’t that inequitable and illegal?  Simitian says yes it’s inequitable, and probably not illegal.  The Governor’s proposal is intended to address those deferrals – but again, only if the tax plan passes.

Question from the audience: Brown’s tax proposal is not for education, but for general funds.  Can he make an appeal for education voters if the money won’t really help enough for education?  Simitian says Brown’s response would probably be that without this measure the situation will be worse.

Regarding Brown’s State of the State speech and its comments on reducing testing in the school system, Simitian agrees with Brown that we need timely access to testing data so that we get it to teachers, parents, and students at a time when it can be used.  (Nevermind the quality of the test?  As a teacher and as a parent, I have no use for the current crop of state tests.  I can see where they might provide districts, counties, or the state with some minimally useful information).  This is a governor who is “skeptical at best” about the value of data.  Simitian thinks data is essential to inform good policy.  (I think they’re talking about different uses of tests, with Brown picking up on the limitations of the tests at the school, classroom, or student level, and Simitian possibly more interested in the state level).  Simitian relates a couple of his conversations with Brown that revealed a difference of opinions on data.  Simitian points out that this attitude about data has played a role in this administration’s disinterest so far in Race to the Top, and NCLB waivers.  (And I say, “bravo!” Both programs reflect the worst type of federal meddling, coercing our compliance with ill-conceived policies in exchange for an amount of money that sounds dramatic but will have very little benefit for schools or students.  States that won Race to the Top grants have not reaped great benefits, and Tennessee has demonstrated the pitfalls of a hasty alignment with lousy federal directives).

Question from audience: why can’t all schools have the flexibility that charters have?  Simitian notes there is increased interest from the state in expanding local control – not coincidentally, because of the shortage of funding.  The key will be to hold on to control when funding improves.

Question about Common Core Standards implementation: Simitian reports no legislative activity around Common Core. The action will be at State Board of Education and California Department of Education.

Pension reform: Simitian is on the conference committee on that issue.  Simitian has opposed “pension-spiking” practices and has tried to eliminate or reform them, but his efforts have ended up linked to other issues in legislation, and have therefore been slowed.  Reform should be fair, affordable and sustainable, because if we reach a crisis then the solution will be hasty and with less attention to those characteristics.

Other tax reforms: Prop 13 split roll?  Oil-severance?  Simitian predicts that these types of measures will crop up if Brown’s measure fails.

Looking further ahead, Simitian has reached his Senate term limits.  Someone in the audience wants to know about the outlook for the future as we lose an influential advocate for education.  Simitian says that he thinks the state’s voters and legislators are increasingly aware of the urgency of reinvesting in California’s educational system.  It’s important for advocates to fight through the fatigue and carry on.  Especially in a term-limit environment, there are always new legislators to whom the case needs to be made, and whose own learning we must contribute to.

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