An Education Funding Fight Over Crumbs

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

After more than two years of this governorship, there’s a clear pattern with Jerry Brown: he likes to pick big fights about small things.

His latest big-over-small fight is the battle over his proposal to change how school funding dollars are allocated. Brown has puffed this up big time – as a “civil rights” issue, as an attempt to “confront the challenge of a two-tier society”, and other rhetoric that’s meant to convey that something monumental is happening here.It’s not. This fight is really over a few medium-sized crumbs from a too-small loaf of bread. The argument is over the allocation of $2 billion of the $50 billion in state school spending, a number that seems large but is woefully inadequate for a state of California’s population that it has left this state near the bottom in per-pupil spending measures.

Brown is right in this very narrow argument. He wants more money to go to schools and communities with the greatest needs, and has proposed a formula and changes in categorical programs that would allow the state to do that. But his opponents aren’t wrong; they understandably want more of the money to be spread around to all public schools, since none have been spared the consequences of California’s broken budget system.

If both sides are right, what’s wrong? The debate itself. Yes, there would be a boost for some schools, and every little bit helps. But it’s madness to have this debate over whether to give a little bit more to schools in poorer places when both sides of this argument should be teaming up to make the case publicly for much greater investments in school funding. How about big reform to allow school boards to raise local taxes again? Or barring such a change, how about at least finding ways to secure enough new revenues to bring California up to the national average?

Instead, Brown has created a public debate that does a disservice to schools and misinforms the public. By saying that something big is at stake here, he creates the impression that something big is being done for school funding – when in fact, California continues to languish. The public thus will believe that much more is being done for the schools. And that misimpression will make it harder to come up with game-changing increases in funding.

Unfortunately, this sort of thing has become a pattern with Brown. His push for Prop 30 suffered from the same defect – he and its supporters built up the initiative as a big boost for schools, leaving the misimpression that our students in teachers would have the money they need. In fact, Prop 30 was a small, temporary but very important way of protecting schools from more financial calamity.

Gov. Schwarzenegger was often criticized, and rightfully so, for over-selling things. Brown’s image is as a guy who is more focused and small-bore. But, by overselling the small, he is making the small the enemy of the big.

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