This is an excerpt of On Assignment, education writer Theresa Harrington's blog on Contra Costa County schools. Read more and post comments at IBABuzz.com/onassignment. Follow her at Twitter.com/tunedtotheresa.

March 15

Governor Jerry Brown's plan to give school boards more control over how they spend money -- and give more funding to districts with needy students -- is creating both optimism and concern in the education community.

At a New America Media briefing about the proposal Wednesday, three panelists described the frenzied debate going on in Sacramento and districts throughout the state. The districts are trying to get as much money as possible for their students.

A California Budget Project policy analyst joined the executive director of Education Trust-West and an EdSource reporter to talk about how this proposal could revolutionize school funding in a way that the state hasn't seen in decades.

Jonathan Kaplan from the California Budget Project said the formula would give schools with low-income students and English learners more money over seven years, which could end up flip-flopping current funding inequities. For example, the Dublin school district now gets about $1,000 more per student than Alameda City Unified, he said. But under the governor's proposal, Dublin would get about $3,000 less per student after seven years.

"Some people say there are winners and losers after this," he said. "But, are there winners and losers now?"


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Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Education Trust-West, said the extra money for low-income and immigrant students could help the state overcome the persistent achievement gap. But, the proposal needs to be strengthened to ensure that extra money really goes to those students and not to other board priorities, he cautioned.

He said civil rights groups are struggling with the proposal because they agree that needy students deserve more money, but they think school districts should be required to show how they will use it to help struggling kids.

"Who's going to hold districts accountable?" he said.

John Fensterwald, a longtime education editor and journalist, said local control will require school boards to be effective.

"The dynamic is changing," he said, "so it requires much more intelligent, involved school board members than we've had before."

He hinted that some may not be up to the task.

"There is debate over the wisdom of local school boards," he said. "Those of us who have been around school boards have seen that they vary in quality."

But he said everyone fundamentally agrees that more money should go to the neediest students.

"The dichotomy over winners and losers distracts from overall agreement that inequity needs to be addressed," he said.

One issue of concern is that funds currently set aside for specific programs that help vulnerable students, such as those for foster youth, will be lumped together in a pot of money that districts can spend however they want.

"The language needs to say it will supplement dollars being spent on needy students," he said, "not supplant it."

Another twist is that money will not be designated for individual schools, it will go straight to the district. So, in districts such as Mt. Diablo -- which includes poor communities as well as wealthy communities -- the poor schools may not be assured of getting the extra money meant for their students.

"Parents are going to have to be very vigilant," Fensterwald said, "and hold boards and districts accountable for spending money on needy students."

Ramanathan agreed.

"For years, school boards have punted this to Sacramento, saying, 'Our hands are tied,' " Ramanathan said. "Now, they will be accountable for how they spend money."

Panelists also agreed that the estimates released by the state are not set in stone, since the Department of Finance hasn't explained the assumptions it used to create them. For the next few months, superintendents and others are bringing their concerns to Sacramento, hoping to influence the final budget, which the Legislature should adopt by the end of June.

"The critical question," Ramanathan said, "is: 'What would districts do with more money?' "

What do you think districts should do with more money?