Education Funding Fight Leads To First Budget Rift

Gov. Jerry Brown is framing it as an epic battle, while Senate Democrats say it’s more like a polite disagreement between friends.

Governor Jerry Brown defends his education funding plan at a Capitol press conference. (Scott Detrow/KQED)
Gov. Jerry Brown defends his education funding plan at a Capitol press conference. (Scott Detrow/KQED)

Either way, the education plan introduced by Senate Democrats this week, along with Brown’s strong opposition to it, is shaping up to be a major battle in this year’s budget negotiations.

Brown made an overhaul of California’s education funding system a major part of this year’s budget plan. He wants to simplify the way the state funds school districts, as well as direct more money to poorer systems.

When Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg was getting ready to announce an alternative this week, Brown was blasting the idea before the lawmaker could even hold a press conference.

“I’m going to fight it as hard as I can,” Brown said Wednesday. “If people are going to fight it, they’re going to get the battle of their lives.”

Both proposals would streamline state funding for schools and give more money to districts with poor students. The difference: Brown’s plan would give an extra chunk of money — about $2.5 billion — to districts where more than half of students are either poor or trying to learn English.

Steinberg would rather distribute the money to every school district, saying Brown’s proposal to concentrate the additional money on poor districts leaves low-income students in other schools “invisible.”

“Because if you’re a poor kid in one of those districts that isn’t in that 50 percent category, they’re not getting the additional money,” Steinberg explained.

To be clear: Both proposals send additional money to school districts for every poor or English-learning student in their system. It’s just that Brown wants to give an additional round of money to districts where those students make up more than half of enrollment.

“The ‘concentration factor’ [that extra bump of revenue] is a relatively small amount of money,” Brown argued. “You spread it out to all the districts, it will have a trivial effect. If you put it in the districts of high concentrations of poverty, it will have a very powerful effect.”

Steinberg was careful to praise Brown’s broad goals when he rolled out the Democrats’ plan Thursday, but you could sense a bit of a turf battle, too.

“We are the Legislature,” Steinberg said. “We write the laws. And we want to make sure that the formulas actually reflect the goal. That’s all we’re talking about here.”

He pointed out that Brown had not discussed his proposal with lawmakers until Wednesday’s “fight of their lives” press conference.

Another “Governor  vs. Senate” difference: Brown is insisting on passing his reforms alongside the budget, which means lawmakers would have less than two months to work out a plan. Steinberg and other Democratic senators said they’d rather take their time and pass the changes as a separate measure.

Education funding is an important issue for both sides, because Proposition 30 tax revenue and the recovering economy mean the state has more — not less — money to spend on schools for the first time in years. The legislative analyst’s office is estimating a $4.5 billion surplus this year. So, there’s a lot of pressure on Brown and the Legislature to make up for previous years’ cuts.

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