Education Plan Tests Brown’s Popularity

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

A new Field Poll shows that California voters are feeling good about Gov. Jerry Brown, with 61 percent saying that he “can be trusted to do what is right.”

Those warm feelings are going to be tested in upcoming months as the governor pits school district against school district in an attempt to overhaul the way state school money is paid out.

Under Brown’s plan, local districts will get a bigger say in how they use the state money they get, but low-income and limited-English-speaking students will get a bigger chunk of the larger fiscal pie than their wealthier neighbors.

To Brown, it’s not only simple fairness, but also a smart use of state money.

With two million children living in poverty and three million who don’t speak English at home, “equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice,” the governor said in his state of the state address last month. And if California fails to properly teach the children who are the state’s future, “we will sow growing social chaos and inequality that no law can rectify.”

But that soaring rhetoric doesn’t necessarily reflect the political reality of the zero-sum game that’s state financing: If some schools get more money, than some others will have to get less. And what local legislator is going to volunteer to let the schools in his district take the hit?

In Alameda County, for example, the Hayward Unified School District, where 67 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, will get $10,911 per student when the new formula is fully implemented in 2019-20, up from $6,755 last year.

But 15 miles up I-580 is the Pleasanton Unified School District, where 6 percent get the federally funded meals. While the district collected $91 more per student than Hayward in state attendance money last year, the $8,451 it will take in come 2019-20 will be $2,460 less than Hayward will receive.

The new state Department of Finance numbers show similar disparities will be played out in counties across the state.

As governor, Brown’s job is to take a statewide view, looking at what will be best for all of California. With the limited political ambitions of someone who’s 74 years old, he can also afford to take the long view, arguing that the financial hit some districts will take over the next few years will lead to a better California for everyone in the future.

But for legislators, the long-range view ends at their next election and their vision for the state often doesn’t extend past the boundary line of their districts. It’s those local folk who elected them and those local folk who will re-elect them. Maybe.

So Brown’s job will be to give legislators, Democrats and Republicans alike, enough cover to allow them to back his educational plan without having their constituents heating the tar and looking for feathers.

That’s the reason Brown’s finance folks stressed in their memo on the change that no school district or charter school will receive less state money than it did this year and that “the vast majority … will receive moderate to significant funding increases” under the new plan.

In the end, though, the same voters who have complained about legislative gridlock and talk about the need to see beyond partisan parochial interests are going to have to decide when they really mean that, when its their own kids and neighborhoods that will be affected, however good it might be for California.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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