Besides a temporary tax hike for public education, Gov. Jerry Brown is attempting a deeper reform to school finance in his budget proposal, state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, told a crowd of educators Saturday (Jan. 28).
If Brown's November ballot package -- which seeks a half-cent sales tax boost plus an income-tax surcharge on earners over $250,000 -- fails, there will be a 5 percent to 6 percent "real cut" to education, Simitian said.
But even if the measure passes, educators won't see additional funds in the classroom because the tax proceeds will go to pay down state budget "deferrals" of recent years. About 20 percent of the $52 billion supposedly guaranteed to public education under Proposition 98 is now "deferred" to the following year, Simitian said.
"Nobody thinks deferrals are easy or a good idea, but given the choice of cuts or deferrals, people prefer deferrals," he said. More than half of the state's $33 billion "wall of debt is essentially owed to public education," he said.
Simitian spoke to an overflow crowd of nearly 200 school board members, administrators, teachers and others in one of his periodic Saturday morning "education updates" held at Palo Alto Unified School District headquarters.
Beyond the tax proposal, Brown also wants to simplify the complex system of "categorical grants" to school districts, eliminating 31 of 57 current "mandates" and suspending 26 others.
The new system would boost flexibility for local districts, save money for the state, and favor districts with high numbers of students who are low-income or English learners. Effects would vary by school district, but generally "basic aid" districts such as Palo Alto would lose under the formula, Simitian said.
Mandates for special education would not be affected, he said.
Simitian, who once served on the Palo Alto school board and is nearing his term limits in the state Senate, described California school funding as "the Winchester Mystery House of public finance.
"It's a structure no one would design from scratch, an absolutely dysfunctional maze, and every year we add another room, which means we're more confused but more invested," he said.
He estimated Brown's proposed reforms to the categorical grant system have a 50-50 chance of advancing.
Simitian described Brown as "skeptical at best about the value of data."
The governor has "left federal money on the tables that would've helped us integrate our 150 different (education) databases.
"If we could integrate them, people could get information longitudinally on things like whether transitional kindergarten produces better results in high schools, or if staff development money produces better results in classrooms, or if class size reduction gets better results.
"None of that is possible without data, but this administration clearly is skeptical on this issue," Simitian said.
He said lack of progress on pension reform "is reminiscent of Proposition 13, where the state was slow to act.
"It's one of those cases where we'd better find a common-sense solution that's fair, affordable and sustainable or it's going to get done for us by folks who are not interested in having something fair, affordable and sustainable," he said.