Editor’s Note: California Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed a new formula for funding the state’s public schools. Known as the Local Control Funding Formula, the plan seeks to address glaring inequities plaguing the current K-12 school finance system. In 2008, State Board of Education President Michael Kirst co-authored a policy brief that became the foundation for Brown’s proposed formula. NAM editor Peter Schurmann spoke with Kirst about how the state ended up with the system now in place and whether the governor’s formula can help turn things around.
New America Media: If education experts agree on anything, it’s that California’s current school funding system is a wreck. How did we get to this point?
Michael Kirst: California was the nationwide leader in school-finance equity up to 1971. That year, the state’s Supreme Court ruled in Serrano v. Priest that the system was unconstitutional because it was based on property tax wealth in California’s more than 1,000 districts. The court was convinced there was a correlation between the wealth of property in the district and the spending level.
This was a major issue in the 1974 campaign for governor, and I was brought in as the advisor for Gov. Brown to solve it. The courts said, “Just make sure the districts are spending about the same amount of money, even if their property tax values vary enormously.”
So we leveled the high-spending districts down and leveled the low-spending districts up. Finally, something like 95 percent of pupils were enrolled in districts that were spending within $300 of each other. The courts said, “Fine, you’ve done your job.” And they ended the suit.
Well, that left us with no adjustments for special needs. And then the categorical programs [legally required, such as special education] began to really proliferate.
NAM: In your view, will Gov. Brown’s proposed Local Control Funding Formula be effective in returning the state to a more equitable system?
Kirst: The plan really adjusts for pupil needs in a way that the current formula does not. As the state added categorical programs, some of them were directed toward needy pupils, but many were not.
As we discussed, the Serrano decision in 1971 was very important in pushing school finance equity. But it merely [said] school districts should spend about the same amount. It ignored [adjusting] the finance system to differing needs of pupils, rather than just worrying about the differences in spending between districts like Beverly Hills and low-income Baldwin Park, for example.
The other thing that is important is the [formula’s] concentration factor. This is really important for California, where so many students live in districts with high concentrations of not only low-income students, but also English learners. [In the new formula] we felt there are special circumstances like these that deserve even higher weightings.
NAM: Previous attempts have been made to pass similar formulas. What’s changed in Sacramento that might give this one a fighting chance?
Kirst: I would say it’s gubernatorial leadership. The governor’s office in California is inherently very powerful, [and Gov. Brown] has really seized this issue in a passionate and committed way, rather than in just an intellectual way.
These things are not easily generated by the legislature because they’re so divided ... Interest groups couldn’t really coalesce over this either because they have members with all kinds of pupil backgrounds. That’s been the pattern in California for the past 30 years. If you don’t have the governor, you really can’t do it.
NAM: Then in that sense, are the shortcomings in California’s education system the result of failed leadership?
Kirst: Yeah, I think so. If you go back to the last time California had money, in 2006, the governor and the legislature created 22 new categorical programs. All they did was reinforce the past. If left to its own devices, the current system will revert back to form, which is more categorical programs and then that disease “hardening of the categories” sets in as lobbyists are hired for each category.
NAM: Are categorical programs, such as those designed for special ed. students, at the root of the problem?
Kirst: I am not against all categoricals. We’ve left special education untouched [in the proposed formula]. The main problem is that California just got hooked on this much more than any other state. So problems of whatever size – big or small – were solved through a categorical grant. Then, as various districts began to be favored by the pattern of categorical grants, the districts that didn’t get much money said, “We need a categorical grant for us.” That included some of the wealthier districts.
Since there was no underlying rationale for what was being done in school finance, it became an ad-hoc political free-for-all. The legislators liked it because they could pass a categorical program and it became their footnote in history.
NAM: California is near the bottom in per-pupil spending. How will Brown’s formula affect the state’s ranking in this regard?
Kirst: The governor has concluded that over the past decade, education – both K-12 and higher education – has been cut disproportionately. So over time, he is committed to moving the [per-pupil] base funding (which averages roughly $8,500 – 30 percent below the national average) up for all districts, even those with lower numbers of needy students. This is a major shift in the priority for education within the overall state budget. That said, [the formula] still can’t make up for the lack of local revenue sources stemming from Proposition 13.
NAM: What would you tell a parent that might make them more optimistic about public education in California?
Kirst: The tectonic plates of the California electorate are shifting. Many more youth turned out [in the November elections] and voted strongly for education. We also had much higher turnouts among Hispanics and Asians, and they voted overwhelmingly for Prop. 30 (a statewide tax hike aimed at boosting the state’s education funds).
The outlook politically is much better than it was 10 or 20 years ago. The governor is committed to education and the economy is emerging from a deep recession. So you’ve got a lot of things pointing in the right direction. But, we’ve been here before. There will be recessions and there is nothing to cushion the downfall at the local level.
NAM: How are the demographic shifts taking place in California affecting attitudes toward public education?
Kirst: The biggest change is the overwhelming shift by all parents, including low-income Hispanic parents, whose kids make up the majority of students in our schools. They want their kids to go and succeed in college.
Over 80 to 85 percent of parents now want schools to deliver that--and we are nowhere close to delivering that. Early on in my career, graduating high school was the goal of a majority of low-income people. Now, it is college. That pressure has been felt by the education political system, and we now have that as a much more overt goal. That is a huge change!
NAM: Does the Local Control Funding Formula help bring us closer to this goal?
Kirst: My answer to that is the Common Core [a new set of state curriculum standards to be phased in by 2015], which cannot be funded by local districts in a system with so many categoricals, so many restrictions and regulations. Districts need flexible money to train new teachers, buy new materials and create data systems to see whether they are on track for college. Local-control funding is an essential and overlooked part of college success.
NAM: Among the many education reform efforts, perhaps none is gaining as much attention as on-line learning. What are your thoughts on that?
Kirst: There have been predictions of technological overhauls in the classroom ever since radio began. When I first started my career in the federal government we were distributing tens of thousands of television sets, and we certainly thought that would be a big change and that all the better teachers would come into classrooms through television sets in the corner of the room. That never worked.
When I left the state board presidency in 1982, we were at the cusp of the technological revolution and there were three computers at the back of a classroom. I thought, “Well, that’s the beginning.” I came back to state office in 2011, and went to visit schools: three computers in the back of a classroom. I was then told, and believed, that once we got handheld computers it would happen. I actually made speeches like that for 15 years. Still, no big impact.
So the way I would summarize it is: Technology has met traditional classrooms and traditional classrooms win.
Michael Kirst, who also advised Brown during his first stint as governor in 1974, is now president of the California State Board Of Education and Professor Emeritus of Education and Business Administration at Stanford University. A veteran of California's education system since 1969, Kirst is the author of numerous works on the subject, including his most recent report, The Common Core Meets State Policy: This Changes Almost Everything.