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Editorial: School suit offers chance for reform

Published: Friday, May. 28, 2010 - 12:00 am

It should be no surprise that California is the latest state to face a lawsuit attacking its school funding system. The current system is utterly broken. It was only a matter of time before someone took the state to the courts.

The Robles-Wong v. State of California lawsuit, spearheaded by the California School Boards Association, certainly is a high-stakes gamble.

But if the threat gets lawmakers and the governor moving to revamp school finance on their own to avoid a court-imposed system, Californians should be all for it.

In our current school finance system, funding decisions have been taken out of the hands of legislators and the governor (and local school boards) in favor of a fixed formula written into the California Constitution.

So the lawsuit takes a big whack at Proposition 98. Finally, the education community (which has protected that monstrosity to date) seemingly has abandoned it.

For good reason. As the complaint states, "Rather than linking education funding to the actual cost of providing and delivering the education program to all students, Proposition 98 ties funding to growth in personal income and growth in State General Fund revenues in a given year."

That makes funding "volatile and unpredictable." Further, the formula is based on the 1986 education budget and does not take account of education program changes that have taken place since then. Worse, what was supposed to be a minimum guarantee of funding, has become the maximum.

The lawsuit also is highly critical of so-called "categorical funding," money restricted to certain programs. Thirty years ago, most categorical funds in California went to services for disadvantaged and disabled students – and tied up only 13 percent of education spending. Today, categorical programs tie up 30 percent of education spending. California relies more than any other state on categorical programs.

As the lawsuit points out, this has resulted in a "significant decline in general purpose funding" and a significant increase in inflexibility and bureaucratic complexity for local districts – thus impeding their ability to "provide the core educational program."

This sharp analysis marks a major shift away from long-held sacred cows in the education community and should help to move the state away from the usual tinkering with the status quo, in favor of doing something bold.

The governor, to date, has said he will fight the lawsuit, content to say that Proposition 98 provides adequate funding, a lame approach. Yet he came into office as an education reformer. He should take advantage of the lawsuit to achieve real change, leading in offering alternatives to the current system – inside the courtroom and outside, in the Legislature. Opportunities like this are rare. Seize it.

What California does not need is more money spent the same old way. Even as the lawsuit proceeds, the governor and lawmakers should work toward a financing system that requires stronger accountability, more parental choice, different ways of paying teachers, performance incentives to districts and other reforms to ensure an "adequate" education for every child.

Leadership by the governor will be crucial if California, finally, is to win large-scale, positive change in school finance.

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