CITYWIDE — Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) introduced legislation Wednesday that would wipe out the current system of financing public education and replace it with one that devolves more decision-making power to locally elected school boards.

At present, education is funded through a multitude of dedicated pots of money, which critics say are difficult to account for and do not distribute money equally from school to school.

“The current system is complicated, convoluted and irrational,” Brownley said. “I think we need to reform it simply to make sure a transparent system to follow the money and ensure that the money is distributed in a fair way with a focus toward English language learners and children of poverty.”

Under Brownley’s proposed plan, the huge number of “categorical funds,” which can only be used for specific purposes, would be streamlined down to four, giving local officials greater discretion in how to distribute money to meet local priorities.

Three of those funds would cover base funding for schools, dedicated funding for English language learners and the poor and class size reduction.

Legislators are still working on details for the fourth funding category.

Brownley has been working on the concept for the bill since she came into office five years ago, but felt that given the current economic climate, now was a good time to push forward with the legislation.

“We all know that we are in fiscal distress in the state, and we’re making significant reductions in education,” Brownley said. “I think it’s important to reform the system now so that when new monies come in, and they will, … it will be distributed in a more equitable fashion.”

The bill would come into effect just as a number of measures that give school districts greater flexibility in spending would sunset, preserving the unprecedented local control that districts only seem to enjoy when budgets are tight.

Many of the ideas were taken from the “Getting Down to Facts” investigation commissioned by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The final product, delivered in 2007, was comprised of 22 studies that revealed a cutting view of the way California manages its education system.

Studies showed that schools suffered under excessive regulation, bad administrators and a finance system that is “unnecessarily complex” and not aligned to meet accountability and performance standards imposed on teachers.

Funding goes to over 100 categorical funds, which are dedicated to single purposes such as school counseling or advanced placement classes. As such, districts can get drastically different per pupil funding that may or may not line up with the needs of the students, but can’t be spent on anything else.

The proposal was met with cautious optimism by Jan Maez, assistant superintendent and chief financial officer for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, where Brownley served as school board president before being elected to the Assembly.

“When you’re in this business long enough, and have seen this many changes, you become just a little jaded,” Maez said. “I try to stay current, and hope this will bring real reform.”

Maez described the restrictions on money going into schools as a pendulum that goes from having a lot of flexibility to having considerably less.

Even within the education community, there are differences of opinion on how much money should be restricted to single purposes.

“People advocate to restrict funds to keep particular programs alive,” Maez said. “It’s a philosophical approach to where and how decisions get made.”

The issue can be a double-edged sword, even for the elected officials that would get more control under the bill’s provisions.

“There’s a reason they do provide categorical funding,” said school board member Nimish Patel. “They want to ensure a certain population of children is receiving funding. Sometimes there is external pressure from interest groups to have that money diverted to somewhere else.”

Even so, greater flexibility allows districts to address the needs of their individual student populations rather than apply complicated and often useless formulas.

“Let the local districts decide, they know what’s important and know what they value,” Patel said.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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