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Governor targets school 'categorical funding' to boost local control

January 2, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
Governor Jerry Brown wants to change the way schools are funded. He wants to drop "categorical funding," which will allow schools to spend some of the money they get from the state on what they need. The move will favor poor, low-performing districts.

Under one scenario, the Los Angeles Unified School District could see as much as a $3,000 boost in per-pupil spending by 2017, while Huntington Beach Unified School District would only see a $400 boost. Critics say they don't like the winners and losers the governor's proposal creates.

In a bid to give districts more local control and boost funding for schools with low-income and non-English-speaking students, Brown plans to dramatically change, maybe even eliminate, what's called "categorical funding."

That's super-restricted money the state gives to schools that must be spent on certain programs, like adult education and reducing class sizes: 56 categories in all, costing nearly $12 billion per year.

"The analogy is that if you buy a pencil with the money out of one program, you better not be catching a kid use it inside another program," said Kevin Gordon, Capitol Advisors, an education advocacy group.

Under new formulas, education finance adviser Kevin Gordon says California public schools would get the same per-pupil funding and would only get more if there's a large number of kids in poverty and/or students who don't speak English.

Some studies show it is more expensive to educate those groups, but it'll come at the expense of more affluent areas to pay for it.

"Typically, the thinking is that urban districts are going to be the ones that win big under this," said Gordon.

But, critics say, wait a minute.

While the goal of giving more money to needy students is good, telling school districts they don't have to spend money on certain programs could lead to no program at all.

To ease budget cuts over the last few years, the state lifted restrictions on a couple of categorical funds.

Consequently, adult education was eliminated in a number of campuses and money to limit class size in younger grades was spent elsewhere, leading to crowded classrooms up and down the state.

"The state has an interest and has an obligation to make sure that school districts are making the best decisions possible and that means having categoricals in place," said Monica Henestroza, California Federation of Teachers legislative director.

"That's the real challenge, is, Do you really believe in local control and let local school boards make that decision, or not? Do you trust them to do the right thing?" said Kevin Gordon.

More of the governor's plan is expected to be unveiled next week when he releases his budget proposal for the year. It will have an easier time passing as a budget bill than as a legislative bill.