LOS ANGELES – Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday proposed a sweeping overhaul of K-12 education financing that would provide more money for low-income schools and give districts more control over how they can spend state funds.

Fresh off voter-approved hikes in the state sales tax and income taxes on the wealthy, the Democratic governor’s newly unveiled budget plan allocates $2.7 billion more for elementary and secondary education and community colleges for the next fiscal year.

Spending on K-12 and two-year colleges would total $56.2 billion for 2013-14. That figure would return the state to nearly prerecession funding after a series of spending cuts. Of the additional amount allocated for the fiscal year starting July 1, the governor wants to use $1.8 billion to pay school districts what the state already owes them in late payments for previous years.

Besides restoring funds, Brown wants to drastically change the way the state distributes money to schools.

The proposal retains the current system’s feature of awarding money based on attendance, but it would add up to 35 percent more based on the proportion of English learners, foster children and low-income students in each district.

Districts with more than half of their student population classifying as low-income, as measured by free or reduced price lunch participants, would receive additional funds in a poverty “concentration” grant.

The shift is sure to cause an outcry among wealthier school districts, but Brown framed it as an obligation to provide more help to low-income districts.

“Growing up in Compton or Richmond is not like it is to grow up in Los Gatos or Beverly Hills or Piedmont,” he said. “It is controversial, but it is right and it’s fair.”

Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, a Republican from Diamond Bar, said Brown’s proposal was generally sound, but he wanted to ensure that suburban districts would not lose funding.

“If the money is going more to the inner cities, which is where you have the higher English-language learners, where you have the higher poverty where the governor’s formula will send it, what does that do? What is the effect of that then in the suburban areas? So that’s certainly a discussion we have to have _ to see the winners and the losers, and is there a way to mitigate that?” Huff said.

Many education watchers applauded the plan.

“It’s been way too long to address this totally irrational financing system we’ve had,” said Ted Lempert, president of advocacy group Children Now. “This is rational and equitable.”

Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy said in a statement that the proposal looked promising for the state’s largest school district, but the additional revenue would probably be just enough to avoid future furloughs and staff cuts, not launch new programs.

In a second major shift, the governor wants to eliminate most “categorical” programs, which are funds that can only be used for a specific purpose. Instead, the money would be given to districts with no strings attached, allowing them to spend the funds as they see fit.

Critics say districts would simply eliminate valuable programs for groups of student populations that categorical status is meant to protect. The state has some 50 programs that range from classroom size reduction to career-technical.

“We like a lot of these earmarked reasons. They serve a diverse educational need,” said Jeffery Freitas, secretary-treasurer of the California Federation of Teachers.

Freitas said the teachers union was heartened that Brown emphasized designating money to keep K-3 classes to a maximum of 24 pupils, although he noted that is still a large number of students and districts are not mandated to use the funds for that purpose.

Huff said he liked the idea of more local control, but would like to see more accountability if school districts were going to have more control over funds.

“Unless we have some more accountability built into the educational system, our experience and even the experts will say it would be wasted money to give schools more money without some expectations of performance to go with that. We didn’t see anything about that,” he said.

David Plank, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, predicted that the categorical elimination could be the area lawmakers meddle with most as special interest groups start lobbying for carve-outs.

“Each of those categorical funds has a constituency behind it,” Plank said. “That’s where the fight is going to be. But if the governor can hold the line, it will be good for California.”

Brown has proposed keeping a few categorical funds, including child nutrition, after-school programs and special education.

The proposal also allows districts to keep funds for two special programs if they want: busing, which mostly benefits rural school districts, and funds for court-ordered desegregation, which mostly benefits Los Angeles and San Francisco unified school districts.

The budget proposal also would change several other aspects of education funding. Responsibility for adult education, for example, would switch to community colleges, instead of K-12 districts, along with a $300 million funding shift.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in a statement that the change could cut access to classes that encompass English as a second language and high school equivalency diplomas.

“I am concerned that severing the longstanding ties these programs have with K-12 districts could diminish access to classes that play a vital role in helping Californians receive the basic education they need to become productive citizens,” he said.

Freitas said the teachers union shared those concerns.

The budget also allocates $450 million of revenue from a corporate tax increase to a special fund for school energy efficiency initiatives.

Associated Press

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