This week Governor Brown threw down the gauntlet, warning those who criticize his plan to overhaul K-12 school funding formulas to stay out of his way. Host Scott Shafer spoke with Sacramento Bureau Chief Scott Detrow about the governor's plan to shake up education funding.
JERRY BROWN: If people are going to fight it, they’re going to get the battle of their lives because I’m not going to give up until the last hour. And I’m going to fight it with everything I have, and whatever we have to bring to bear in this battle, we’re bringing it.
SCOTT SHAFER: I don’t know if it was all that hot and sour soup he had on his recent trip to China or what, but Brown was unusually feisty. Joining us now to talk about the governor’s plan to shake up education funding is our Sacramento Bureau Chief Scott Detrow. Hey Scott.
SCOTT DETROW: Hey Scott, how ya doing?
SHAFER: I’m well. So boil it all down for us if you would. What are some of the key elements of Jerry Brown’s proposal?
DETROW: Like all things state funding and education related, this gets very complicated very quickly, but we can divide this into two big camps. First of all, Gov. Brown wants to take all of these what are called categorical grants – these are specific amounts of money that the state gives to school districts to do things like physical education, like teacher training, like safety, things like that. He wants to squish those all down into one big grant that the state gives to school districts, saying “you can still spend money on all of these things, but local school districts, you decide how you spend your money. We’re not going to give you specific requirements.” By and large, that’s something everybody seems to agree on.
The other part of this is where you start to see the divisions. Brown wants to essentially give more money to school districts that have more poor students and more students that are trying to learn English. And he’d do that by taking the money that the state gives to school districts and dividing it into three pods. First there’s a basic amount of money that every school district would get for each student. Depending on the age range of the student, it’s between $6,000 to $8,000 per student. Then Brown wants to take what’s called a supplemental grant, and for every student who’s poor – and they define that by saying students who are eligible for supplemented meals, things like that – and for every student who’s an English language learner, the school district would get a chunk of that grant, about 35 percent of the initial grant they’re getting.
SHAFER: You know, helping poor kids, English learners, that seems like something Democrats would agree on, and they have a super majority in both the Assembly and the Senate. But they’re not unanimous on this issue, so how are the politics shaking out?
DETROW: That’s right. The Senate Democrats say they’re on board with giving more money to school districts that have more poor students. It’s just the details that get complicated, and it really all centers around this third chunk of money, which is called a concentrated grant. And that’s an idea where Gov. Brown says, ‘Look, if you’re a school district where more than half of your students are either poor or trying to learn English, I want to give you a third round of money.” This is about $2 to $3 billion we’re talking about. And that’s where Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg – he’s the top Democrat in the Senate – disagrees.
STEINBERG: We are concerned about the same kids he’s concerned about. Under his formula, there are thousands of kids that remain invisible, because if you’re a poor kid in one of those districts that isn’t in that 50 percent category, they’re not getting the additional money.
SHAFER: So, Scott Detrow, how is Steinberg’s plan – the Senate Dem’s plan – different from Jerry Brown’s?
DETROW: He wants to take that third pot of money, that so called concentration grant, and spread it around to every school district and basically increase the initial grant that the state is giving to them. Gov. Brown has big problems with that, as you heard from that sound bite. He got very angry, saying he’s going to fight that, saying he’s going to give them the battle of their lives, and Brown’s argument is that, in “state budgetees,” $2 to $3 billion isn’t really that much money. He says it gets more bang for its buck by concentrating on these poor districts as opposed to spreading it around throughout the state.
SHAFER: So let’s talk about winners and losers. We’re not talking about a lot more money as you said, so, who would get more? Who would be the big beneficiaries of the governor’s plan?
DETROW: This is where the politics start to get interesting because urban school districts and rural school districts with more poor students come out as big winners in Gov. Brown’s plan. And the losers are the suburbs that have wealthier students, higher property values, and they don’t get less money than they would before. They would receive kind of baseline money.
But their problem is this: They’re saying, “Look, for years and years now, through these bad budget years, we’ve lost money from the state. This is a year where we’re getting more revenue for the first time in a long time, and this plan kind of leaves us behind.” One school district like that is Acalanes Union in Contra Costa County. Associate Superintendent Christopher Learned says this really puts them in a bind.
CHRISTOPHER LEARNED: In a district like ours, the dollars that are going to be restored are coming back so slowly that even though people are under the belief that Prop. 30 passed so we’re saved financially in this district, we’re not. We’re going to have to be cutting.
DETROW: And there’s no issue where the politics are more local and more emotional than education. This is something where parents take a look and say, “Wait a second. My kid’s schools are important. We’re getting less money here. We don’t like this idea.” They might start pressuring legislators and that could lead to some interesting outcomes here.
SHAFER: And that brings up the question: Where is the public on this? Do we have any sense?
DETROW: Yeah, the Public Policy Institute of California took a look at this just last week, and they found overwhelming support for Gov. Brown’s idea of directing more money to poor school districts. Something like 70 percent of respondents to that poll said that they are on board with that plan. That number fell a little bit when they asked the question in the way of, “Well if they get more money but other school districts get less money, are you still okay with it?” But still between 50 and 60 percent of respondents said, even when you put it that way, yeah this is a good idea.
SHAFER: And Scott, finally, all of this is part of the governor’s budget. The May revision of that budget is coming out. What happens next? How is this going to unfold?
DETROW: Tax revenue is coming in pretty well in California, especially compared to the last few years. Right now people are projecting the state’s going to get something like $4 billion more than they were all planning on. We’re in kind of a holding pattern for another couple weeks here, but then this will really heat up because Gov. Brown is saying he wants this done with the budget, which means a final plan needs to be in place by June 15. And the Senate Democrats are saying, “Well maybe that can happen, but we really want to take our time here, and if this bleeds into the fall, this bleeds into next year, that’s okay with us too.”
SHAFER: First big battle between the governor and his Democratic allies. It’s going to be interesting to see how it all shakes out. Sacramento Bureau Chief Scott Detrow. Scott, thanks so much.
DETROW: Any time.