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O.C. districts question Brown's plan for neediest students

Orange County school leaders reacted with a mix of enthusiasm and trepidation to Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to overhaul school funding Thursday, saying the neediest students would likely benefit but that the fate of all other students would hang in limbo.

California’s governor has proposed a new education funding formula that would send extra state dollars to districts with English language learners and economically disadvantaged students. But the plan would require largely dismantling the existing system that directs so-called categorical funding to a variety of specific programs and services.

“The concept of a weighted student formula has logic to it because some types of students are more costly to educate, but the hold-harmless approach is really going to be tough” to execute, said Celia Jaffe, president of Orange County’s umbrella PTA group and a Huntington Beach City School District trustee. “We’re all at such low funding levels.”

Under the governor’s plan, school districts would receive a 35 percent increase in per-student funding for each of their English language learners and economically disadvantaged students.

Meanwhile, districts where more than half of students fall into those categories would automatically receive a second 35 percent bump in per-student funding.

Economically disadvantaged students are those who qualify for free and reduced-price school meals.

“In general, I like the trend line and the direction the conversation is going,” said Christopher King, superintendent of the Anaheim City School District. “Spending the same amount of money on every kid is not an equitable way to distribute funding, and it’s gratifying to see the governor recognizing our distinct needs.”

The 18,800-student Anaheim elementary district has the highest portions of English learners and economically disadvantaged students in Orange County – 56 percent and 86 percent, respectively.

But, King emphasized, it’s not immediately clear if districts like Anaheim City would receive more funding than they would under the current funding model.

That’s because the state would no longer dole out about three-fourths of its annual $7.6 billion categorical school funding budget, said Darren Dang, Anaheim City’s assistant superintendent for administrative services. (Categorical funds are restricted dollars intended for dozens of specific programs and services, although the state has relaxed restrictions on their use in recent years.)

Also, Dang said, the governor’s plan calls for awarding supplemental funds to English learners for a maximum of five years, so the district would lose funding for students who retain this classification for more than five years.

“It’s not clear to us how this will shake out,” Dang said.

In a teleconference Thursday with reporters, state budget officials said it would be a few weeks before they release budget projections for how each California school district would fare under the proposed funding formula.

Nick Schweizer, the California Department of Finance’s program budget manager for education, emphasized that no districts should see actual drops in funding; instead, they might see less growth in future allocations.

“We’re committed not to taking money away,” Schweizer said, “but over time, we expect the funding system to be realigned to be more equitable and reflect the needs of the students that the district is serving.”

The California Teachers Association also expressed concerns about the proposed funding formula Thursday, questioning whether the state should change the funding-allocation formula before schools are “repaid all of the money they are owed” following years of state budget cuts.

The governor’s budget plan includes a $1.8 billion payment on that debt in 2013-14, leaving $5.6 billion to be repaid in subsequent years.

Although the governor’s proposal is expected to run into opposition from lawmakers representing more affluent regions of the state, Brown argued the state needed to spend proportionally more on students with “disproportionate challenges.”

“Growing up in Compton or Richmond is not like it is to grow up in Los Gatos or Beverly Hills or Piedmont,” Brown said at a Sacramento news conference. “It is controversial, but it is right and it's fair.”

Marcus Walton, a spokesman for the Capistrano Unified School District, said the district will make the best of whatever hand it is dealt. In Capistrano, the county’s second-largest district with 52,400 students, 24 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and 10 percent are English learners.

“We’re not in a position to change the things that come out of Sacramento, but I think over the years we’ve proven we’ve been able to implement excellent programs with what we’re given,” Walton said.

For now, many districts are simply happy to hear the governor touting public schools as a top priority in California again.

“We are definitely pleased and optimistic,” said Deidra Powell, a spokeswoman for the Santa Ana Unified School District, “but we also know a lot can happen between now and the May revise,” when the governor will present an updated budget plan for 2013-14.

On Thursday, Brown proposed spending $2.7 billion more on public schools and community colleges for the next fiscal year, for a total of $56.2 billion in 2013-14.

That figure, which would account for 57 percent of all state general-fund spending, will bring California almost back to pre-recession funding levels.

Budget cuts in recent years had reduced spending on public schools and community colleges to $53.5 billion this year.

The budget also allocates $450 million of revenue from a corporate tax increase to a special fund for school energy efficiency initiatives.

The state's two four-year higher education systems, the University of California and California State University, each will receive $250 million more.

–The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact the writer: 714-796-7802 or or Twitter: @MartindaleScott

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