With his overhaul of the state’s school funding mechanism, Governor Jerry Brown seeks to achieve two goals: Offer more control to school districts, and shift resources to the neediest students who currently benefit from various categorical funds or, in other words, money that must be spent on specific programs. Most categorical programs, however, will be abolished under Brown’s plan, called the Local Control Funding Formula. In their stead, the governor offers supplemental grants for economically disadvantaged students, orphans, and English learners amounting to 35 percent of the money apportioned to every single student. Districts with over half such students will receive an additional 35 percent for each student over the 50 percent threshold.
The logic of Brown’s plan, however, defies school districts in the South Coast that cannot be categorized as rich or poor because they are both. Many of the area’s kids resemble those in any other struggling urban district while a large portion also benefit from the wealth necessary to buy property in some of the toniest niches on the California coast. No district may be more exemplary of that phenomenon than Carpinteria Unified. While the median home price by the world’s safest beach is higher than that in the City of Santa Barbara, 61 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, and 36 percent are English-language learners.
School officials there are worried that the new formula will throw the district out of “basic aid” into “revenue limit.” Basic aid districts raise all the money that the state decides is necessary to fund their schools via property taxes, and they get to keep most of the excess. Revenue limit districts, like Santa Barbara Unified, do not fulfill their reputed needs with property taxes and thus depend on state allocations for their education funding.
All of the small elementary school districts on the South Coast are basic aid. Montecito Union, for instance spends $21,599 in property tax dollars per student per year whereas Santa Barbara pays $5,638. The Goleta and Hope districts do better than Santa Barbara, but with much more modest incomes than the single school Montecito Union and Cold Spring districts, some have speculated that they could be dragged into revenue limit as well. Goleta Superintendent Bill Banning said that such a possibility is so far out, and given shifting demographics, it would be unwise to speculate at this point. Hope’s business manager, Sandra Doria, said her district is confident that will not happen.
According to a spreadsheet produced by the Department of Finance, the governor’s plan will make little difference to funding in the Hope, Cold Spring, Montecito, and Goleta districts. But when it is fully implemented in seven years, the Carpinteria and Santa Barbara districts should do better by $2,000 and $3,000 per pupil per year, respectively.
“I think it’s a great idea conceptually,” said David Cash, superintendent of Santa Barbara schools. “I’m all about having a locally elected school board make decisions on how to best spend funds. The devil, like anything, will be in the details.”
Cash is not confident in the DOF numbers, however, and, given all of the unforeseen legislative and economic vicissitudes to arrive over the next seven years, he questions whether it is possible to calculate funding levels so far out. “I’ve learned being in this business that making predictions for school funding is not a good job to have,” he said. He also believes that the grants for disadvantaged children should be doled out on a school-by-school basis and not at the district level, noting that 90 percent of the students at some of his schools qualify for free or reduced meals while the number is more like 20 or 30 at others.
Like Cash, Banning also praised the governor’s formula “on a conceptual basis.” Similarly, Paul Cordeiro said, “I agree generically with the idea of as much funding equity as possible per student.” He added, however, that “If you really wanted to follow through on that concept, you wouldn’t have any basic aid districts.”
While some other area officials agree with that sentiment, they also agree that such a radical change—and the lawsuit necessary to bring it about—is unlikely. As Sandra Doria put it, “I think the reform that is occurring now is unprecedented.” And with Democratic supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature, most prognosticators believe that reform is also likely.