Practically nothing rivals the U.S. tax code for complexity, but even budget experts have trouble understanding education funding in California.
More than 40 percent of the state general fund is spent on public schools. With voter approval of Proposition 30 in November, that sum is likely to exceed $40 billion in the state budget plan for 2013-14 that Gov. Jerry Brown unveils on Thursday.
But almost half of state and federal money for K-12 education comes earmarked for dozens of specific programs — smaller classes, summer school, adult education and so forth. With all the mandates, local officials have little flexibility to set priorities or address problems specific to their schools.
Brown wants to change that.
"What the state has done for 40 years is develop one new program after another to compensate for underperforming" schools, he told the Los Angeles Times recently. "What we have now is command and control issuing from headquarters in Sacramento."
It's long been clear to us that the top-down system isn't working. One reason for the popularity of charter schools is they're freed from many of the state mandates. For now, other public schools are, too. Many of the state's mandates — formally called categoricals — have been suspended until 2015 because of budget deficits.
In his budget proposal, Brown is expected to recommend eliminating most of them permanently, freeing local school districts to decide how best to spend the money they receive from Sacramento.
At the same time, the governor wants to shift more state money to school districts with large populations of low-income students and students learning English.
"The reality is, in some places students don't enjoy the same opportunities that people have in other places," Brown told the Times. "This is a way to balance some of life's chances."
Brown offered a similar plan last year, but he met with stiff resistance from some legislators and school districts. He retreated rather than risk a fight with school officials while campaigning for a tax hike for education. His new proposal may be sweetened with an offer to increase basic per-pupil funding as well as a promise to restore some of the money cut from public education over the past five years.
Overhauling the school funding system won't be easy. Interested parties include the governor, the Legislature, the state Board of Education and state schools superintendent and all their local counterparts as well as teachers and parents. Satisfying everyone isn't possible. But all the stakeholders must know that the current system simply doesn't get resources to the right places. The result is widespread dissatisfaction with California's public schools.
A simpler, more equitable system doesn't guarantee better performance. But giving local school districts greater flexibility would allow them to better tailor their programs to meet the needs of their students and their communities. Added benefits include more transparency and greater accountability.
If Brown can deliver that, he'll earn high marks on his next report card.