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Education Budget Testimony

Prepared remarks by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson before the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee on February 16, 2012 in Sacramento.

Thank you Senator Leno, Senator Emmerson, and members of the committee. It's a pleasure and an honor to be with you today.

I look forward to discussing with each of you soon my views on the Governor's full budget proposal, including the proposal to dismantle California's decades-long commitment to early learning and child care, as well as my concerns about education bearing the brunt of any potential trigger cuts.

I understand and respect the focus of today's hearing, however, and commend you for devoting this time to the weighted student formula—one of the most important proposals we have seen come out of the Governor's office this year.

School funding in California is at a crossroads. Years of deep budget cuts have left us with hard questions, and no easy answers. As a state, we must ask ourselves, what is our fundamental role in the lives of children?

My first week in office, I joined with parents, teachers and community leaders to declare a state of financial emergency in our schools. A year later, that crisis has deepened rather than eased. As I said at the time, I wanted to call out the National Guard. I couldn't do that, but collectively, we've sounded the alarm. More Californians than ever are aware of the funding crisis in our schools, and the terrible impact of the $18 billion in cuts to education in recent years.

They want to invest in our schools again. But they also want to know, and deserve to know, what they're investing in and what results we expect to achieve. The crisis we are in also provides California with both an obligation and an opportunity: An obligation to reexamine how we allocate resources to children and schools; and an opportunity to rebuild a stronger foundation for our funding system, based more closely on student needs.

This is not just about how resources are allocated. It's about fundamentally reorienting us away from measuring inputs in the form of dollars and resources and toward outcomes.

While there are budgetary considerations in these discussions, there are enormous policy implications as well that should, and I trust, will be thoroughly examined in the proper policy committees.

In a state as large and diverse as California, students come to us with widely varying challenges and needs. More than half need help paying for their school lunch. One in four comes to school needing to learn English. One in four lives in poverty and comes to school without health care coverage. One in five has parents who didn't graduate from high school.

Any good teacher will tell you every student is different. They each learn in different ways and at different speeds. And we still reach them one at a time.

That's why a weighted student formula can make so much sense, because it directs additional state resources to students and schools with the greatest needs. It was a key recommendation of my Transition Advisory Team, in our report, A Blueprint for Great Schools. State School Board President Mike Kirst, was a member of the team's finance subcommittee. I am pleased to sponsor Assembly member Brownley's AB 18 that consolidates categorical programs in a manner that would achieve many of the same goals as the Governor's weighted student formula.

As this discussion moves ahead, we must link flexibility for funding decisions with accountability for results. Until now, spending on categorical programs has been our only way to measure our investments in meeting statewide goals. To be sure students have textbooks, we provided categorical funds for instructional materials. And to keep classes from becoming overcrowded, we provided funds for class size reduction.

In recent years, districts have been provided with flexibility over the use of many of these funds. Some serious concerns have emerged, particularly as the budget crisis has deepened. Classes have grown much more crowded. Materials budgets have been cut. And we risk entire systems of services being dismantled. Los Angeles Unified, for example, has proposed eliminating their entire adult education system, cutting services to more than 300,000 students.

Reductions made at a local level can have a statewide impact, particularly if they make it more difficult to meet federal maintenance of effort requirements, as we have with adult education.

Like categorical flexibility, a weighted student formula proposal frees school districts to use what were once categorical funds in any manner they choose.

The fundamental question we must wrestle with is, once we no longer measure our commitment to a statewide goal in dollars, how do we measure our progress? That's why any plan to replace our categorical funding system with a new weighted student funding formula must be accompanied by improvements to our system for holding districts accountable for outcomes. An API score, which is the central feature of our current accountability system, provides some good information about student proficiency on a few subjects. It tells us nothing, however, about whether students are physically fit, or the quality of career, technical, early learning, or adult education programs.

Great teaching, access to technology, students with the critical thinking, problem solving, and team skills they need to succeed in college and career—those are the outcomes we want. How much can be measured with data? How much can only be assessed first hand, at a school or in a classroom? How do we ensure that we have the tools we need to measure these outcomes? That's why—while I see great potential in a weighted student formula approach—we need to look closely at the huge policy implications, and give them careful policy consideration as well.

In a system as large, as complex, and as stressed as California's, we need to move carefully. I know you've already heard from the Public Policy Institute of California that outlined a number of important principles in their recent white paper.

Let me echo its recommendations, but also suggest several others. First, phase in changes—both to funding formulas and to the accompanying policy choices—over a period of years to identify and avoid any unforeseen problems. Second, basic funding should be the same whether the child attends a charter school or a school operated by a county office of education or a school district. Third, recognize when flexibility may not be appropriate, because accountability mechanisms do not provide sufficient protections for populations or services of continuing statewide interest—in adult education—for example. And finally, be sure that oversight and accountability functions or services—whether provided by the state, through a regional entity (such as FCMAT or county foster youth services) or on a local basis—are funded separately and adequately.

There are other considerations to keep in mind as well. The Governor's proposal is based upon passage of his initiative in November. I'm glad to see that—and like him—I'm optimistic about providing voters with an opportunity to invest in our schools again. Still, we've got to think about the ramifications for this weighted student formula proposal if the initiative fails at the polls. Our first priority must be ending the financial emergency in our schools and putting them back on solid financial ground. Unless we do that, our schools won't have the stable foundation they need and we risk building this new system on shaky ground.

That's why we also must keep in mind the enormous strain that years of cuts have placed on local districts and accept that their ability to adapt to new systems may be limited. Still, I applaud the Governor's vision. This is a conversation California needs to have and I am grateful to all of you for helping to begin this important discussion today.

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