Analysis: Brown’s school finance reforms opens rift among Democrats, districts

SEE PUBLIC COMMENT BELOWFor months, Democratic lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown have largely skirted a growing political rift over whether to include the governor's plan for restructuring school finance as part of the budget negotiations or set it out for a full legislative review under the committee process.

Tuesday that confrontation broke clearly into public view.

Democratic Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, whose Contra Costa County constituents might end up net losers under the administration's new funding plan, put one of Brown's top aides on the hot seat over what she called their insistence to rush" the sweeping program through the Legislature as part of the budget.

Michael Cohen, chief deputy director of the governor's Department of Finance, vigorously rebutted her challenge. Among other things, he pointed to an estimated $17 billion in additional Proposition 98 funding that a recovering economy is likely to inject back into what the administration has called a flawed and imbalanced school funding system.

Although the exchange before the Assembly's education committee resolved nothing and ended quickly, it put a spotlight on what may prove a very difficult vote for many lawmakers and one that might have implications for the November election.

"We seem to be moving full steam ahead with a formula that has not been well-thought out, has not had proper vetting, hasn't involved stakeholders and doesn't save a penny," Buchanan asserted during a hearing on Brown's revised May budget. "So can you please explain to me why we are going in this direction?"

Cohen challenged her assessment that stakeholders had not been involved in developing the governor's plan and pointed to a number of changes that Brown agreed to as part of the revised May budget released Monday.

But in the big picture, he argued, the opportunity is right for change.

"I think the chart that shows the $17 billion of increased Proposition 98 over the next four years is your answer," Cohen explained. "This is the beginning of an opportunity to reinvest in our schools and we want to make sure we are allocating those dollars in a rational and sensible way."

Brown's original plan drew strong opposition from education groups, mostly out of a sense that the timing for such a drastic change was wrong given that so many districts are in financial crisis. But resistance has come from the fact that the plan would create winners and losers over time, pitting district against district as limited funds would be simply redirected dictated by the formula.

Revisions offered Monday by the governor seek to address a number of the issues that have been raised.

He has, for instance, proposed increasing the base grant that all districts would receive while lowering the pool of money set aside to support disadvantaged students.

The governor proposed a grade span funding adjustment to account for the higher costs of educating older students. And he lengthened the period for transitioning to the new system to seven years.

Buchanan acknowledged Tuesday that she had not had a chance to fully evaluate the revised plan, and so far school groups mostly have withheld their opinions on the new proposal, too.

But the former school board member from San Ramon Valley could have been speaking for many of her colleagues Tuesday when asking that the governor's plan be submitted for a full legislative review by policy committees and the public.

While no one from the administration might say so publicly, their opposition to that idea is one rooted in politics. If the school finance restructuring plan was sidelined into the policy process, the governor would lose significant leverage he holds over a majority of the Legislature while the program remains part of the budget.

No doubt, Brown knows as well as anyone how easy an idea can be killed in committee.

That said, there is the November election fast approaching and there may be reason for him to avoid a bruising budget battle that might create conflicts within the powerful education community.

PUBLIC COMMENTS:

From Matt Moran, Trustee, Orinda Union School District

"An additional 17 billion dollars in prop 98 guarantees"? What a joke. Mr. Cohen kept a straight face when he made this comment? This is a representative of a Governor who says he is "fully funding" public education right now. That is a bald faced lie at worst and a disingenuous statement at best. Through deferrals and negative COLA's, school funding in the state is a joke right now. I encourage ALL Californians to vote NO on the Governor's tax proposal in November as he and his cabal takes us for fools. Pass pension reform and fully fund schools without deferrals and negative COLA's and I will consider supporting his tax initiative, otherwise there is no way it will pass.

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