Last week Governor Jerry Brown released his proposed budget for fiscal year 2012-13. In order to cut the projected deficit, the plan relies on tax increases that must be ratified at the ballot box in November. If voters approve those new revenues, Brown has proposed allocating $5 billion more to K-12 schools than they receive this year. If the taxes are voted down, Brown wants to cut nearly $5 billion, leaving almost $10 billion in total at stake.
Aside from the amount of funding schools will receive, though, two other proposals were tucked into the budget that could prove controversial. I asked KQED education reporter Ana Tintocalis to clue us in. Edited transcript here:
We know the governor is proposing a big K-12 cut if his tax plan doesn't pass, but talk about what he wants cut regardless of any new revenue coming in.
One thing we know for sure that is not part of the trigger cuts is the cutting of the transitional kindergarten program..The governor estimates $225 million a year would be saved by eliminating that.
Currently, there's a state law that requires school districts to start phasing transitional kindergarten in over a three-year period. Many people call this a two-year kindergarten program.
The program came out of the current thinking among education reformers that you need to really look at the early grades, the building blocks of learning, to figure out what students really need. Thus, a really high-quality kindergarten program is important.
Transitional kindergarten is essentially a new grade, created for students too young to be in traditional kindergarten but too old to be in pre-school. Students who turn five years old by Sept 1 in any school year qualify to enroll in these transitional classes. The recommendation is that kids who qualify should go, though it isn't required.
But now the governor is calling for, basically, the revocation of this state law, which was signed by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2010. A lot of districts are already piloting these programs, and now they're being told they won't have the money to keep those classes intact if Brown's proposal goes through. And a number of districts, including Sacramento, San Francisco and Oakland have already rolled out these classes as part of a pilot program.
So some kids would have to go to pre-school for another year…
That's a possibility, but for many parents who don't quality for a state pre-school program or don't have the money for private school, that will be a hardship.
Talk about the education finance reform that Brown included in his plan.
This is very interesting because it was really tucked inside the budget proposal. If it goes through, it would drastically change the way schools are funded in the state of California.
Right now there are these protected pots of state funding for education, all tied up by a complicated web of regulatory strings. So schools can only use the funding if they spend it in certain ways, like for example on college prep programs or on child care.
What the reform would do would is loosen those strings and give control of how to spend the money to local districts.
It would also allocate money to each district based on the number of disadvantaged students they service, giving those systems extra money to address the educational needs of those particular pupils.
Right now, the money is allocated per student, spread out evenly among all districts based on size. Brown's proposal would redistribute money to districts with a bigger concentration of disadvantaged students. So for example, Los Angeles Unified, made up of about 90 percent low-income and ESL students, would get much more funding than a district that has, say, only a 20 percent student population of these types.
The idea is that you're giving districts extra resources to get learning done with difficult students.
That sounds like a shift that is going to be very contentious…
It's radical. There are people who hate the idea.
Supporters of more affluent districts will most likely fight the plan, as well as people who really value these special protected programs that could potentially lose money.
Is this type of funding distribution an idea that's been around awhile?
Advocates for this type of funding distribution were surprised that Brown rolled it out with the budget. But the idea has been in circulation among education experts for a long time.
There is a consensus among education researchers that this is the way funding should be doled out, and there is some bipartisan political support for it as well.
The idea is also connected to those protected pots of money we talked about. Right now a lot of money is allocated for what's called categorical programs – specific programs that the money has to be spent on. And there's a lot of paperwork and documentation associated with the spending of that money.
But let's say you have a lot of ESL Kids -- you won't necessarily be able to use any of the money earmarked for other programs on the education of those students. You may have to use it on child care or college prep, even though that may not be your biggest priority or need.
Basically, the concept is that if you have more disadvantaged students that are harder to educate, that takes more resources.
The budget says the $5 billion that schools could lose if the taxes don't pass is the equivalent of three weeks of school. Does that mean schools will lop off that time at the end of the year?
No. But it does force schools, once again, to take a look at the number of school days they offer, because many districts have cut services and programs and employees, and really what they have left to cut is compensation of teachers and employees.
So the cuts could result in furlough days – the shortening of the school year. I don’t' think any district would shorten the year by three weeks, but they would either ask their employees for more furlough days, do an across-the-board paycut, ask the unions for concessions, or tap into their reserves.
Last year, there was a bill slipped into the budget at the last moment that required school systems to cut the school year instead of laying off teachers. Is that still in play?
No this is a new budget year. But it's a similar situation in that last year there was the threat of the trigger cuts if revenue didn't materialize, and this year there's also that threat if the tax plan doesn't pass. So school systems still have to plan with the hope that the funding will materialize while also considering a worst-case scenario.
A lot of school districts didn't comply with last year's mandate to not do layoffs, maybe because there were no actual penalties for not following the law. About 900 school systems planned on the worst-case scenario and made deep cuts that included layoffs, as opposed to those that didn't and relied on the rosy budget projections, which turned out to be not totally accurate.
How hard is it for a school system to plan concurrently for vastly different budget scenarios?
What I've been hearing from school districts is that they've totally changed the way they balance their budgets. They now have to come up with at least four or five plans every year, different contingencies dependent on how much they might receive from the state. That's very taxing on school finance departments and superintendents. They have to create a portfolio of possible options from best to worst case.
That's why districts are so upset with Sacramento – there are so many possibilities, and operating a district with, say, 130,000 students and not knowing how funding is going to stack up even halfway through the school year is very difficult. Districts have become very wary of pronouncements coming out of Sacramento. They just can't plan on any of these scenarios being floated.
For more on Brown's proposed changes to school funding...