Op-ed: Our students can’t wait

Op-ed: Our students can’t wait

Rob Siltanen

Have California’s chronic school funding problems, at long last, been fixed? If you’ve been listening to the governor’s political cheerleaders in Sacramento this winter, you might start to think so.

We see the good news that education will be getting a funding increase this year. We hear about the potential of the state’s new mechanism for distributing those funds to schools, the Local Control Funding Formula, which sounds like a good way to get funds to the students who most need additional educational resources. Some days the tone of the political conversation about all of this is so triumphant it feels like someone is channeling President George W. Bush standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier in front of a big banner declaring “Mission Accomplished.”

Is that warranted? Are the years of California underfunding its schools through an inadequate, inefficient, dysfunctional system that deprives students of their constitutional educational rights finally over? Should we all join in the cheering for a mission accomplished?

Although it would certainly make it easier for the folks in Sacramento if we did, the clear answer is no. In trying to sell us on the idea that school funding has now been fixed, the governor’s cheerleaders leave out quite a few facts.

State funding levels for education continue to be far from adequate

Even with the widely heralded increase in school funding coming this year, California will remain in the very bottom group of states nationally in cost adjusted per pupil funding as well as in K-12 spending per $1,000 of personal income. We will still have among the very worst teacher-student ratios in the nation. We aren’t even close to average.

Back in 2007, by the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence found that the levels of education funding in California were inadequate and “(do) not ensure that sufficient resources reach students according to their needs.” Unfortunately, that conclusion still fits in 2015.

The bottom line is that whether the state’s school funding comes through the Local Control Funding Formula and Local Control Accountability Plans, via the former system the new one replaced or by any other mechanism, there’s no escaping basic math: California’s school funding levels remain far below what would be adequate to provide our students with the opportunities for quality, meaningful education that are their constitutional right in California.

State funding continues to be volatile and unreliable

Exacerbating all of this is the reality that the state revenues on which schools depend are not only inadequate but also volatile and unreliable. Linking school funding as California does not only to the business cycle generally, but to highly variable capital gains tax receipts in particular, makes things much worse than they have to be.

In addition, as the governor likes to remind us, Proposition 30 – the state tax increase voters approved in 2012 to provide billions of dollars a year in critical funding for schools – was a temporary tax measure. Accordingly, in coming years the revenue Proposition 30 now generates for education will drop out of the picture and school funding will be reduced.

Long term planning for the stable and sustainable programs, services and staffing that are essential for student success is made very difficult not only by the insufficient levels of school funding in California, but also by the ongoing unreliability of funding.

The state’s new funding mechanism lacks sufficient accountability measures

The Local Control Funding Formula has no accountability mechanism in place to ensure the (inadequate, unstable) state education funds that are supposed to reach particular students will actually do so. The extent to which those funds actually reach and support the students they are designed to help most – students from low-income families, foster youth, and English learners – will depend almost entirely on particular local conditions, which vary from place to place.

In other words, under California’s new mechanism for delivering education funds to school districts, the state provides even fewer protections (in contrast with categorical funding under the old system, which dictated specific uses for specific funds) to make sure money reaches the students who need it most. As a result, how a student will fare with the (inadequate, unstable) funds the state provides through the Local Control Funding Formula depends on how lucky the student is with respect to the time, know how, and political will that exist at a particular time in the specific place where the student happens to attend school.

In Alameda we hope we have the local conditions necessary to make this part of the new funding mechanism work. Still, whatever happens here with this part of the state’s (inadequate, unstable) funding system, it is clear that since sufficient time, know how and political will won’t exist in many school districts, this new distribution system will not work across the state as advertised.

For these reasons and more, we still have a very long way to go to get school funding right in California.

Robles-Wong v. California and CQE v. California

Nearly five years ago, a coalition of families from across the state (including mine), nine school districts (including Alameda Unified) and three statewide educational organizations filed a historic lawsuit, Robles-Wong v. California, alleging that the way California funds its schools violates the state Constitution.

The legal and factual issues our case raised in 2010 remain as relevant as ever in 2015, notwithstanding the self-serving tall tale many in Sacramento are trying to tell us. The school finance system’s mission has not been accomplished and school funding has not been fixed.

Nearly three years ago, our case and a companion case, CQE v. California, were appealed to the California Court of Appeal. In our case, the state’s lawyers blithely argue that California's children do not have an enforceable right to a quality education.

Oral argument in our case has still not been scheduled. As a result, here in 2015 the children of California are still waiting for their day in court.

Sacramento's legislators may have time, the governor may have time, and the courts may have time. But California’s students can't wait any longer for a quality education.

Rob Siltanen is an Alameda parent, teacher, and former school district administrator. His family members are plaintiffs in Robles-Wong v. California.

In the fall of 2010, Michele Ellson wrote about Alameda’s role in the case and some of the people and issues involved at the time: https://www.baycitizen.org/news/education/alameda-teachers-fix-californi...


Submitted by Bill on Mon, Feb 9, 2015

Is it the school room that needs greater support, or is it the home where the student lives that they need the support? Is it that we enough space and money, but simply have too many children to teach? Will there ever be enough money to teach all those who need it? Education has been communicated as an ongoing problem, though we seem to turn out some very capable kids each year. Is money truly going to help when book companies are charging far too much for books? Will money help the fact that we seem to be teaching topics in class that may not be of real value to a student? Have we moved beyond the old and tired ways of teaching? Without seeing a realistic vision for how students need to be educated over the next 25 years, it is hard to support the constant request for more money.

Submitted by MJ (not verified) on Mon, Feb 9, 2015

As long as California is a high tax, business-unfriendly, unable to distinguish needs from wants, government union-run state, there will never be enough money. Look no further than public employee pension promises, the $100 billion plus bullet train to nowhere and any list of business unfriendly states, like this one: http://www.forbes.com/sites/mikepatton/2013/03/31/the-most-and-least-bus...

Submitted by AMLH (not verified) on Mon, Feb 9, 2015

If our school system is so great, why is it that so many teachers have to buy supplies out of their own pocket? Two things to me are important: good pay equals good teachers and keeps them enthusiastically engaged; and a better way to get rid of poor teachers must be created. Everyone deserves a good education and a chance, whether it's in the trades or going for a PhD.

Submitted by Mike McMahon on Mon, Feb 9, 2015

More supporting documentation on CA's investment in public education.