Dems Vote to Slash School Funding

February 1, 2012 - By admin

FEB. 1, 2012

By KATY GRIMES

Anyone involved in state politics would concede that it would be a cold day in hell when Democratic legislators vote to cut school funding, especially to schools in their own districts. But that it exactly what happened on Tuesday.

This week, the Assembly Budget Committee passed SB 81, a fast-tracked bill that supporters say would restore the trigger cuts in the Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget to the Home to School Transportation program. By doing this, legislators reversed a $248 million school bus and transportation cut, and transformed it into a reduction that instead targets cuts in each of the state’s K-12 school districts, more “equitably and evenly.” Or so they say.

The 27-member committee passed SB 81 with a vote of 20-5, with two abstentions; 15 Democrats and five Republicans voted in favor of the cuts. Five other Republicans voted no.

The day before, the Assembly passed AB 1172, by Assemblyman Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, to make it more difficult for charter schools to be approved by school districts, based on a nebulous definition of “negative fiscal impact” to the district.

It has been a tough two days for California charter schools.

Budget Woes

Last summer, the Legislature passed a majority-vote budget that relied on “trigger” cuts, if by December 2011, revenues were not at the levels that were expected when the budget was enacted.

SB 81 “restores a reduction of $248 million to the HTST program for Fiscal Year (FY) 2011-12 and replaces this with a reduction of $248 million to school district, county office of education and charter school funding,” the bill’s analysis states.

But if the bill was equitable, fair and even, why single out charter schools for the funding reduction?

California’s public charter schools do not receive any of the state’s home-to-school transportation funds. Instead of just taking money back that had been previously allocated to traditional public schools for transportation, this would be just a sizeable budget take-away for the charter schools.

Underfunding Charter Schools

The Legislative Analyst’s Office just released a new report, “Comparing Funding For Charter Schools and Their School District Peers,” and not a moment too soon. The report is two years overdue, according to charter school advocates.

The report found that charter schools have been substantially underfunded compared to traditional public schools. “Completely closing this funding gap in 2012-13 for the roughly 440,000 charter students projected statewide would cost $133 million,” the LAO reported.

Add this new cost onto the disproportionate cuts charter schools have faced since 2008, and it appears that there are many lawmakers who don’t want charters around.

Charter schools are funded at a base year rate, with 2008 as the base. But many charter schools were either not in existence, or very new in that year. Jed Wallace, CEO for the California Charter Schools Association, said this can cost charters as much as $1,000 per student in state funding.

“On top of that reality, charter schools are blocked from borrowing the same tax revenue notes as traditional public schools,” Wallace explained. “They borrow at a 1-2 percent rate. We have to go to capital markets and pay 15-20 percent interest.”

Supporters and Opponents

Assemblyman Brian Nestande, R-Palm Desert, asked that a representative from Gov. Jerry Brown’s office comment on the bill, which reverses one of the trigger cuts in Brown’s budget. “The governor is okay with the current version of the bill,” reported Michael Cohen with the Department of Finance.

“I am frustrated with a lot of other members,” Nestande said to the committee. “This is not a new issue. Some districts are getting disproportionately hit. It should have been addressed previously and was not.”

Nestande said after the hearing that while the state has to fix this problem with the budget we have, charter schools are deliberately short-changed.

The governor proposed creation of a new block grant funding program for K-12 schools, from which schools could choose to have bus service if they need it. Nestande said that the governor’s proposal would allow school districts manage their own affairs, including transportation needs. Some school districts have serious transportation issues, and others do not.

“It’s a catastrophic problem in my district and in many other rural parts of California,” said Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro, D-Arcata. “Garberville students have no other options for going to school. And there are no public transportation systems. For some parents, it would be three-hours to and from school,” Chesbro added.

“There are 770 square miles, and one high school,” said Dr. Paul Stanton, Superintendant of the Humbolt Unified School District. “And there are no sidewalks.” Several officials from the Humbolt School District traveled six hours in school buses to attend the hearing, along with many Humbolt area school children.

Supporters of SB 81

SB 81 had many union supporters at the hearing, including the California Teachers Association, the Los Angeles Unified School District, State Superintendant of Schools Tom Torlakson, the California School Boards Association, the California School Transportation Officials and the California Labor Federation.

While the transportation cut would hit some rural districts disproportionately hard, Torlakson has not actively addressed this issue.

“Enough was enough,” Torlakson said in response to Brown’s announcement of the elimination of home-to-school transportation. “It’s a sad day for California.”

‘Taking hundreds of millions of dollars from our schools — on top of the $18 billion in cuts they have already suffered — will only make life harder for students in California’s chronically underfunded schools,” said Torlakson in December, when it became clear that the state budget trigger cuts would go into effect.

Torlakson had a representative at the hearing on Tuesday, but she merely stated his support for the bill.

Undermining Charter Schools

Public charter schools have never been fully funded by the state, and do not receive all of the block grant funds that the state’s traditional public schools receive. The LAO report confirms this.

With passage of SB 81, instead of cutting bus service, an across-the-board cut of $42 per student would take place for all public school students.

But charter schools are ineligible for bus money and are inequitably funded by the state. Charter schools would also be cut $42 per student, adding to the $301 per-pupil shortfall charter schools already have.

“The wheels of the bus are falling off the majority vote budget we just passed. We had other options of where to spend the money in the budget,” said Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point. “The districts I represent, I called virtually all of the superintendents from the larger districts, and not one of them comes out a winner. This will go on and on. And the only reason is, we’re out of money.”

Assemblyman Bill Berryhill, R-Ceres, said his district will also be hit hard. He said, “We have enough money to do anything we want, just not everything. It’s a matter of priority.”

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