The fair / unfair distribution of school resources. In 2000, the ACLU filed suit (Williams et al. v. State of California et al.), claiming that the obligation of the state to provide all students with "basic educational necessities" was not fulfilled. One million of California's students are deprived of educational basics, such as qualified teachers, decent school facilities, and appropriate textbooks.
An important part of these problems are caused by the inadequacy of the school system funding in the state. Others are problems to be solved by individual school districts, since they are seen as a local management problem.
The new concept behind the reform of school finance of California is the "weighted student formula" or "student-based budgeting," which is believed to be a way to a more equitable and effective school funding system. Still, skeptics doubt that it the concept is applicable to California's 9,000 schools serving 6 million children and that there is an actual proof of the system's effectiveness.
Equity of the school funding system has been a very debated subject. The Serrano v. Priest court decision in the 1970s concentrated on equalizing tax efforts among districts. In the previous years, the discussion focused more on accountability and standards than on improving equity. However, the new Williams v. California lawsuit has brought back to attention the issue, this time on a school - site level.
The "weighted student formula" concept began to attract peoples' attention when former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan was appointed Secretary for Education by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Soon after, Riordan began discussing about a major reform of the state's educational system, which would imply a simplified finance system, more power for school site officials and extra funding of students with most needs.
The central idea behind the weighted student formula is quite simple. Money shall be allocated directly to schools, on a per-pupil basis. A base amount for the "average student" shall be allocated for each student, with extra funding for various categories, such as high-poverty students or English learners. These methods were applied in several districts and states and always contain some differentials for English learners, students with disabilities or form low-income families. There may also be incentives, or premiums, for certain grade levels or for gifted students. Vocational and other special approach programs may benefit form the same treatment. Weighs may be expressed in monetary units or percents. The idea of "weigh" was also implemented in some categorical funding programs, such as the Special Education to Economic Impact Aid (EIA) to Gifted and Talented Education (GATE), which stated that additional funds must be allocated for the education of students with special needs.
One issue to this concept is to provide adequacy to the program, in a sense that a very precise estimation of the level of funding each school needs in order to fulfill the needs of the students they serve. The Annenberg Institute for School Reform's "First Steps to a Level Playing Field: An Introduction to Student-based Budgeting" report states that if equality is about leveling the playing field and providing all students the same opportunity, then weighting student funding to achieve this goal can be considered fair, even when it means that some students receive more dollars than others.." The distribution of funds from state to school districts has been the main subject of adequacy debates regarding the California school finance system. The weighed student formula brought up concerns relating to inequities that may occur within school districts. These inequities are caused by the method used by the districts to allocate resources to each school, which implies the involvement of district administrators, school board members and teacher union leaders.
Reforms regarding the distribution of resources to school sites. The state does not control at the moment how funds are distributed to each school site. All 982 school districts act as separate fiscal agents, liable for school operations. A much larger reform debate, regarding decentralizing budgetary control of schools, in a context of a framework of accountability for performance also involves the degree by which the weighted student formula shall affect school level resources.
The California State Senate Republican Caucus from March, this year summarizes the most important aspect of the weighted student formula and its application to school sites: "Budgetary control over per pupil funding is granted to individual schools where it is calibrated to the specific needs of the students. Funding decisions are based on three principles: resources follow the student; resources are denominated in dollars, not in staff ratios; and the allocation of resources varies by the education characteristics of the needs [of students]. The goal is to ensure more equitable distribution of resources while providing the flexibility necessary to meet the educational needs of different students." According to this point-of-view, the responsibility of spending funds is attributed to school site leaders, teachers and parents. Test results may measure, for instance, the performance of a school and its corresponding principal, and so that he or she might be held accountable by the district superintendent. The republicans have a very market-oriented approach, claiming that "if schools fail to provide effective programs, students will leave -- and their money follows them. Thus the arrival and/or departure of every student impacts a school's budget."
The decentralized approach doesn't solve all the problems and must be integrated into a larger school reform program, as school officials and researchers have warned. Some other aspects that need consideration are maintenance of academic standards, accountability, an appropriate choice of schools and training for school officials. Another aspect is the determination of whether the resources available to schools are adequate to the task. A Quality Education Commission has been set up in California, which has the job of performing a costing-out study, in order to estimate the needed level of school funding.
Whatever the approach the legislators choose, redesigning California's K-12 education funding shall have long-lasting impacts on public schools. A number of issues have to be resolved by reforming policymakers, such as how exactly the weighted student formula would influence the system. The decision regarding what students should receive extra funding is very much a political one and may initiate further inequity debates. The information sources available to the legislators are not only the experience of other states, but also the work of various researchers, including the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). Currently, issues such as teacher assignments and class sizes are decided on a district level, which does not coincide with the new approach. Federal regulations on Special Education may also conflict with the decentralization policy.
Another issue is purely administrative. It is not clear whether the state has a sufficient number of administrators who have the require capabilities in order to assume full budgetary control of their schools. Professional development and higher salaries would also probably be required. Although site flexibility shall be realized, the accountability for school performance is also a major problem, if there isn't a clear method to identify underachievement when it comes to spending state funds. Policymakers assume that accountability mechanisms and market pressure based on parents' choice would be enough to ensure similar educational opportunities for each child.
California is a very large state and has therefore a great number of school districts with various sizes, so the weighted student formula reform would have significantly different impacts, depending on the community. About 23% of the state's school districts have only one school. Most districts are in rural areas, but there are also some in very crowded urban centers. There are just 12 districts with a student population of more than 50,000 students, with 700 school districts between the two extremes, with a wide variety of characteristics. District regions are also very diversified. In this context, knowing if a decentralized school funding system combined with school official accountability will actually work is a difficult problem.
As for the benefits Proposition 13 brings to California and its school system, opinions are divided. Stephen Moore, who is director of fiscal policy studies at the Cato Institute, argues: "Political analysts often argue about when the modern-day conservative movement in America began. Some say that it began with Barry Goldwater's campaign in 1964. Others say it began with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. I believe that the conservative, anti-big-government tide in America began 20 years ago with the passage of taxpayer advocate Howard Jarvis's Proposition 13 in California."
The effects of Proposition 13 were felt all over the nation, as Jarvis's initiative to put a cap the further increase of California's property taxes and to reduce them to 30% preceded president Regan's tax cuts in the 1980's. California's example was followed by other states, which also decided to limit the politicians' possibility to raise taxes. Currently, most of the limitations set forth by Proposition 13 are in force.
Proposition 13 passed in 1978, despite of all expectations, because inflation had become such a problem that citizens were selling their homes in order to…