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Brown’s school finance overhaul sparks infighting over details

Gov. Jerry Brown’s landmark overhaul of public schools’ finances was aimed at their most vexing issue — chronically low academic achievements among poor or English-learner students.

Not only would more money be spent — billions more, in fact, thanks to a tax increase — but state aid would be weighted toward districts with large numbers of targeted kids.

Spending more and weighting the spending both drew broad support within the often fractious education community, even though there’s no consensus in academic circles about the efficacy of increased school spending.

In fact, the most comprehensive study of California schools, conducted by a Stanford University team, concluded that, “The relationship between dollars and student achievement in California is so uncertain that it cannot be used to gauge the potential effect of resources on student outcomes.”

Sound policy or not, Brown’s change is a major turning point. It has sparked infighting over how the extra money is to be distributed and how its impacts are to be assessed, widening what was already a big split within the ranks of Democratic politicians, voter blocs and advocacy groups.

The program’s details were purposely vague because Brown wanted implementation left to the state Board of Education, whose president, education professor Michael Kirst, devised the weighted formula concept.

The governor also made it clear that he wanted maximum flexibility left to school districts under the rubric of “subsidiarity,” defined as allowing local officials to make decisions based on local circumstances.

Brown underscored that attitude by vetoing a bill to tighten up distribution and monitoring of the extra money — legislation that business-backed reformers and some civil-rights and parental groups had supported, fearing that “flexibility” would mean siphoning off money for higher salaries or other purposes.

The issue is now before Kirst and other board members, and a very lengthy hearing graphically displayed the split between the reformers and the education establishment, including unions, which chanted the “flexibility” mantra.

Last month, Democratic legislative leaders issued a letter to Kirst that was highly critical of the board’s first draft of regulations — siding with reformers against the establishment and, indirectly, Brown.

Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Education Trust-West, a major advocacy group, penned an open letter warning that the split threatens successful implementation and therefore the program’s public credibility.

Kirst and others are now rewriting the regulations with the goal of adoption in January. It’s a historic moment and, as Ramanathan warns, an expedient approach that fails to bring results would be poisonous.

Dan Walters cover state politics for the Sacramento Bee.

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