Adequacy of school funding–an issue for another year?

Adequacy of school funding–an issue for another year?

(Calif.) With the state’s fiscal outlook as good as it has been perhaps in a decade, and now with Democrats holding a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature, some within the education community might have thought a conversation over the adequacy of school funding would finally happen.

But based on release this week of a budget blueprint from Assembly leaders, big picture education questions aren’t on the radar. Instead, it sounds like lawmakers from the lower house will concentrate mostly on building reserve funds and fending off any number of unwelcomed advances from the Trump administration.

“We have a lot to be proud of in California,” said Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, chair of the Assembly Budget Committee in a statement. “We have one of the world’s largest economies, we invest in the success and security of our people, and we have a level of financial stability envied by other states.  Yet, some of our people still suffer and we must invest in them. We need a plan to move this state forward.  We can’t govern by asking a Magic 8 Ball whether Washington will hit us this way or that way.”

Thanks to an improving economy and voter approval of tax hikes on the state’s highest earners–a levy extended by 12 years in the November election–the state’s K-12 schools have fully-recovered from the nadir of the Great Recession. Per pupil spending fell to a decade-old low of $7,627 in 2011-12, before bouncing back to $10,657 in the 2016-17 school year–just above the pre-recession high of $10,066 in 2007-08.

But to many advocates for California schools, those numbers remain well below what is needed to fulfill a fundamental right to education–something some say is protected by the state constitution.

Last summer, the state Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of an adequacy lawsuit brought by a number of groups including the California Teachers Association, the California School Boards Association and the state’s PTA. The case, which had been winding through the courts for six years, fell apart with a decision from the appellate level that the courts lacked the authority to tell the Legislature how much they needed to spend on education.

Proponents have said they intend to continue their campaign either in the courts or before lawmakers, arguing that the Legislature does not provide enough money given the expectations of the state’s academic content standards.

If there is a good time to raise the issue before legislative leaders, now might be one of them.

The non-partisan Legislative Analyst reported earlier this fall that the state was better positioned now to deal with an economic downturn than any point in decades. As a result of voter-approved saving requirements, the state will have an estimated $11.5 billion in reserve by June, 2017, according to the LAO.

Gov. Jerry Brown, famously tight-fisted during his second run in office, has returned California’s credit rating to the “high grade” category, thus reducing borrowing costs and allowing easier terms on refinanced debt. Brown’s efforts have resulted in buying down to a manageable level what he once called the state’s “wall of debt.”

Economics aside, the politics of the school funding issue are also more promising than they have been in years.

The defeat of three Republicans in the state Assembly–Young Kim of Fullerton, Eric Linder from Corona and David Hadley of Manhattan Beach–have given Democrats complete control over the lower house.

And they gained control in the state Senate with a razor thin victory for Democrat Josh Newman over Republican Ling Ling Chang for the seat representing the Diamond Bar area.

The significance of the supermajority is that Democratic leaders have new leverage in their negotiations with the governor because if they can muster the troops, they can override a Brown veto.

At this point, Assembly Democrats don’t seem too interested in raising such a challenge. The budget priorities released this week are modest and not out of step with Brown.

They are worried about Trump and the Republican Congress repealing the Affordable Care Act and how that might impact California. They are also concerned about tariffs and a trade war with China. With those issues in mind here’s what the Assembly leadership wants to accomplish next year:

  • Smart incentives and investments to create jobs, affordable housing and homelessness prevention programs;
  • Expanding the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit to serve families making less than $15 per hour;
  • Implementing all-day kindergarten across California;
  • Phasing in a program for debt free college education;
  • Providing funds for legal aid services to help immigrants–especially youth benefitting from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program–and in California; and
  • Assisting communities most harmed by the negative environmental impacts of climate change.

 

“Voters sent a clear message that they approve of the direction of the state,” Ting added.  “Our budget reflects their values and a plan for long term investment in education, health care, and infrastructure.”