State’s School Funding Has Fatal Flaw

 

This spring, Alameda Unified School District (AUSD) engaged in a comprehensive review of its budget. The goal was to identify educational priorities and then find ways to realign the budget in order to direct more funding to employee salaries, which are about 10 percent less than the county average. 

The effort was partially successful: in April, the Board of Education approved $2.7 million in program cuts to use toward employee salaries. That amount allows us to offer about a 4.5 percent raise to our teachers for their contract beginning next year. AUSD is hopeful that AUSD and the teachers’ union will come to agreement on these contract negotiations in the next few months. But clearly there’s further to go.

Throughout the budget review, employees and community members alike often asked, “Why can’t AUSD pay its teachers more?” Without question, some local factors play a role (including AUSD’s above-average special-education costs and below-average class sizes). But we musn’t forget the larger factor, too: a chronic lack of full and fair state funding for education.

California is the fifth largest economy in the world, and the state educates more public school children (6 million) than any other state in the country. Yet, despite recent increases in state funding, the state’s schools and districts continue to be among the lowest funded in the nation. California is currently ranked 46th in the nation in per-pupil spending. As a result of that low funding, the state is also ranked 48th in its student-to-teacher ratio and 49th in the number of the counselors we provide our students. All of this is simply because of inadequate funding for our public schools.

And it’s getting worse. While the state economy is booming, schools across California are cutting programs and laying off employees to try to avoid spiraling into bankruptcy. AUSD itself made major cuts this year in order to help employees with sharply increasing costs of living in the Bay Area. The district expects to have to make more cuts in future years. Why? A fatal flaw in California’s five-year old local control funding formula (LCFF) is pushing many school districts to the brink of financial insolvency.

This fatal flaw has nothing to do with the principles on which the LCFF was based — the idea that all districts should get the same “base grant” per pupil, but that districts should also get “supplemental” grants based on the number of at-risk students they enroll (and districts with a high percentage of these vulnerable students should get “concentration” grants on top of that). This has nothing to do with the fact that, after years of devastating cuts to school district budgets, LCFF did indeed increase public education funding — to the level it was at back in 2007, more than a decade ago. 

No, the flaw has to do with the fact that, since 2007, the basic costs of running a school district have skyrocketed due to significant new expenses imposed by the state, including:  

  • Purchasing and maintaining  technology to support state-mandated computerized tests; 
  • Providing federally and state-mandated educational and health-related services for an increasing number of students with special needs;
  • Implementing California’s new minimum-wage increases; 
  • Funding an increased percentage of pension costs that school districts are now mandated to pay;   
  • Purchasing curriculum for California’s new content standards. 

Of course, money is not the only solution to raising academic achievement. But without question, the continuing erosive impact of California’s low investment in education cannot be dismissed. Alameda students are competing for college spots and jobs with students from other states whose educations are much better funded than ours. Our state and its economy cannot afford to continue to shortchange our public education system and to handicap generations of young people. Our families and young people themselves cannot afford it.

The good news is there is a way to fix this fatal flaw before our students pay the price. Assembly Bill 2808 (Muratsuchi), is currently under consideration by the legislature. It would increase the amount of school district “base grants” to at least the national average of per-pupil spending. That’s a 60 percent increase and one that would allow districts like AUSD to pay its employees the wages they need to thrive while also maintaining the programs and services our students and families need to succeed.

I feel strongly about the merits and worth of AB 2808. And I’m not the only one. Over the last year, the AUSD Board of Education and I have worked with the California School Funding Coalition to explore this and other measures to increase much-needed school funding. Currently, all 47 districts in the coalition endorse the measure. 

So, too, do numerous other school districts, statewide education organizations, employee associations and parent groups. The need is more than clear at this point: Alameda’s schools, children and employees need better funding. It’s time to demand that funding. It’s time to support AB 2808. It’s time to advocate for the full and fair funding required to help California schools deliver the promise of college and career readiness for every child.