Jennifer Imazeki is an associate economics professor at San Diego State University and conducts research in the economics of K-12 education, including work on school finance reform and adequacy. Most recently, she assisted California Assemblywoman Julia Brownley in developing legislation for comprehensive school finance reform. These are her views, not mine, so if you have comments, questions or counterarguments, please post them directly to the blog or e-mail her at jimazeki@mail.sdsu.edu — EMILY ALPERT

As a professor in the California State University system, I see the impact of the state budget cuts firsthand, every day. And as a lifelong advocate for California education, I fully endorse the ideals behind the March 4 rallies.

But as a researcher, my call to action for Sacramento is a little different than what was heard at those rallies. Rather than simply asking for more money for schools, I would ask for real change to the California education system, at least at the K-12 level.

Thanks to Proposition 13 and the legislative response to a 1970s court case that prohibits a school’s revenues from being tied to the wealth of the local community, combined with 30 years of politicians adding new regulations and programs, California has a system of school finance and governance that is highly prescriptive and often irrational.

We have an education code that is thicker and more convoluted than almost any other state (with the possible exception of Texas) and local schools have almost no control over how much money they receive or how they can spend it. California may rank 46th in the level of per pupil spending (or 24th if you don’t adjust for costs) but we rank dead last when it comes to local control over that spending.

Because of these issues, education researchers have long argued that California’s schools need more than just additional resources. Just a few short years ago, the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence and the 20-plus studies of the Getting Down to Facts project all agreed on one thing: California’s education system, as a whole, is in need of fundamental reform. Our schools need more flexibility, more stability and transparency, and policies that are simpler and more rational.

If anything, the budget crisis has made the need for systemic reform even clearer. At the local level, budget cuts force schools and districts to think hard about their priorities and make the painful choices necessary to use their shrinking resources most effectively. Making these hard choices is never pleasant. But it is even more difficult when schools’ hands are tied by state regulations.

Local administrators did get a small bit of relief in the 2009 budget act, which suspended the restrictions on funds from almost 40 categorical programs. But even with the new ability to divert those funds to other uses, schools and districts are still required to comply with other state regulations about everything from textbooks to teacher training. Policymakers should be working to give schools and districts even more freedom to use the resources they still have in ways that are most in line with local priorities.

In addition, under the requirements of Proposition 98, which established a guaranteed level of funding for K-14 education, at least some of the current cuts will be returned to schools in the future. This provides an opportunity for legislators to tackle perhaps the most politically charged problem with the state’s school finance system: the irrationality of revenue allocations.

By irrational, I’m referring to the fact that the amount of revenue received by a district has more to do with historical accident than the actual costs and needs of that district. Thus, two districts with similar costs may receive vastly different amounts of revenue, and a district with higher costs may receive a similar amount of revenue as one with much lower costs.

Fixing this problem would involve giving additional resources to those districts that have higher costs. Unfortunately, with a fixed (or shrinking) pot of money, the only way to do that is to take money away from other districts, a politically tricky feat (read: impossible).

However, as the economy grows and some of the lost education revenue is restored, one possibility would be to adjust the current aid formula so higher-need districts receive at least somewhat more of that revenue, slowly moving us to a more rational system. The current governor has shown no interest in tackling this thorny issue but this is the sort of fundamental reform that his own committee proposed.

There is no doubt that California schools need help now, but there might be a silver lining to the budget mess if legislators take this opportunity to push for real reform, looking beyond just handing over more dollars to schools and crafting a system that will allow those education dollars to be spent in more effective ways.

— JENNIFER IMAZEKI

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