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California Could Face Lawsuit Over Inequities In School Funding

An investigation by KPBS and the nonprofit reporting group, Watchdog Institute, has found inequities in the amount spent per-pupil by public school districts around the state. California's schools chief says if the funding situation isn't fixed, it may end up in court. KPBS Reporter Joanne Faryon joins us to discuss the story.

Special Feature Statewide Basic Aid Funding Maps

To search the maps, click on a district to view revenue and per student funding information about that district. The darker the color, the more per-pupil funding the district raised through local revenues.

An investigation by KPBS and the nonprofit reporting group, Watchdog Institute, has found inequities in the amount spent per-pupil by public school districts around the state. California's schools chief says if the funding situation isn't fixed, it may end up in court. KPBS Reporter Joanne Faryon joins us to discuss the story.

Guest

Joanne Faryon, KPBS News Reporter

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Kids may be heading off on vacation, but school topics heat up in San Diego. This is KPBS Midday Edition. Some school districts in California are more equal than others when it comes to per pupil spending. A KPBS Watch Dog Institute investigation finds the legislature and state schools officials concerned about school funding in equities. Than we examine the budget battles taking place at San Diego's largest school district where it seems a projected budget boost is not easing tensions. And finally, retiring SDSU president Steven weber talks about the highs and lows of his 15 years in office. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, KPBS Midday Edition is next. First the news.

CAVANAUGH: How much does your child's school district spend on each student a KPBS investigation finds some stark inequities, and SDSU president Steven weber joins us for a farewell interview. This is KPBS Midday Edition. Even though summer vacation is starting, Midday Edition is all about school today. In the San Diego Unified school district, a potential increase in state funding is causing unexpected tensions between the board and the Teachers' Union. And San Diego state's outgoing president weber tells us about the challenges that lie ahead for the school. But we begin with an investigation by KPBS and the reporting nonprofit agency, the Watch Dog Institute. Despite lawsuits and legislation over the years in California, the investigation find wide disparities between what different school districts spend on public education. And about a new effort in the California hedge similarity to even the playing field. KPBS reporter Joanne Faryon joins me, and hello, Joanne.

FARYON: Hi, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Now, first of all, Joanne, give us a difference in the purpose of per pupil spending that you found.

FARYON: On average, the state spends about six thousand dollars per student across the state. And of course that can vary from five to seven thousand dollars. And what we found in our investigation, certain districts called excess tax districts formerly known as basic aid district, they generate an amount above that state funding. Some of them maybe only five dollars extra for student, but some of them as much as 13 thousand dollars extra per student, which obviously ad-As up, if you have a number of students in your district. And they're able to do this because by and large, they're in wealthier neighborhoods, their properties are worth more. They raise more in property taxes. And they're allowed to keep that excess property tax money to fund their schools. I say they're allowed to. Basically they're keeping those excess property taxes to fund their schools, whether or not they're allowed to I think is what's up for debate in our investigation.

CAVANAUGH: I see.

FARYON: We want our listeners to know that we have eight of these districts in our county, most of them are in North County. And actually, you can see a map of them on our website, KPBS.org. Rancho Santa Fe, Del Mar, sort of districts in that coastal North County community. For example, Rancho Santa Fe, I believe, raises about 53, 55 hundred dollars extra per student and with that additional money, they're able to reduce their class size almost in half.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So to be clear, if the per pupil spending in, let's say San Diego unified school district, in a public school is less than in a public school in Del Mar?

FARYON: These are all public schools. And these are all -- I'm not talking about foundation money, I'm not talking about sort of this extra money that parents are able to raise. I'm talking about property tax dollars. Public money in publicity schools, and literally, you might be just a few miles apart from one school, they're in theory supposed to have equal funding, but it's not happening that way.

CAVANAUGH: Haven't there been efforts in the past to address inequity between high property tax districts, and perhaps lower property tax districts to try and even that playing field?

FARYON: Exactly. So here's the thing: Across the country, this debate is happening. If you go to other states, we hear, well, this is the way it works because for the most part in other states, you generate your school funding through property values, and some neighborhoods get more money. And there have been lawsuits happening now in other states. California decided this issue 40 years ago. At least we fought we did. In it 1968, there was -- this California Supreme Court ruling, Sorrento versus Prece, and that said it ordered the state to do something about this gap between rich and poor. There are neighborhoods just by virtue of their property values, schools can raise so much more money and it's not fair. The California court decided that wasn't fair. And as a result, the state said, okay, we'll make sure there's a limit as to how much you can spend per student. And they set a limit, and every district had to fund their students that way. After what happened a few years later after that court ruling was something called proposition 13, and that's where voters said you can't raise my property taxes by more than a certain amount every year.

CAVANAUGH: Right, right.

FARYON: As a result we got a lot less money in property tax, schools didn't have enough money, the state started kicking in the difference and paying for public schools, so now fast forward the clock 40 years later. What's happened, the state is giving public schools less money, so they're shrinking that revenue limit. It's getting smaller. And properties are going up in value. So some neighborhoods, in affluent areas are actually generating enough money in property taxes, not only to pay the minimum amount per student, but to pay a lot extra, as we saw in our investigation.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I mean that's just really sort of a weird turn of events. When you asked some state officials though about this inequity, you got unexpectedly blunt replies, right?

FARYON: Well, finally we did. Initially, Kevin Crowe, who is the Watch Dog Institute reporter and I made a lot of phone calls for the past several week, and most of the people we spoke to in government knew this happened. It was like a dirty little secret in financing. We even had some people whispering on the phone when they were describing the situation, and our question was how come this happening if we had a Supreme Court ruling saying it's not supposed to happen? Finally we did get a response from the state stupid Tom Torlakson, and I was able to interview him yesterday and said, look, haven't the Courts decided this issue? How come this still exists? And you're right. He was pretty blunt about his response and the fact that something has to be done about this. And you can hear for yourself what his answer was.

NEW SPEAKER: If it isn't taken care of by the legislature and the governor, I believe there will be a civil rights lawsuit that will force these issues in the Courts. I would prefer to see the government of California collectively solve this problem without having the Courts order arbitrary formulas to solve the problem.

CAVANAUGH: So he's basically saying there's a lawsuit in our future if we don't do something about this.

FARYON: Absolutely. And you know, Maureen, Kevin and I, Kevin Crowe and I were asking people, why hasn't the state been sued? Why hasn't somebody said, wait a minute, this distribute seem fair? And quite frankly because I think education funding is so complicated and no convolutes, nobody really understands this.

CAVANAUGH: That's a depend idea. What about the idea of redistributing funds from districts that have higher property tax revenues to areas with lower property tax revenues? I'm thinking about sort of what the NFL does with revenue sharing.

FARYON: Right. So Kevin and I thought that too. So we started asking those questions. Why wouldn't -- we know that in the California constitution, you can't take property tax dollars out of the county, right? It has to stay in the county. But we have 42 school districts in our county. Eight of them collect this extra money. Couldn't you take that extra money and decide it among -- San Diego Unified is strapped for cash. Well, we found out you can. The legislative analyst's office told us yesterday, yes, the state has the power to do that, if they have the political will. But it doesn't sound like it's a politically feasible idea. The other person that we spoke to throughout this investigation, actually Kevin Crowe did this interview with Randal ward, and now he's the San Diego County board of education superintendent. And he's been involved in education for air long, long time. So he compared it to another thing that a committee looked at a couple years ago. There was a governor's committee on education excellence. And someone in that committee said, hey, we know there are districts that have approved something called parcel taxes. That means that voters went to the poles, they said, yeah, I'll pay another hundred bucks or two hundred bucks a year in taxes, and that money will go right to my school. Again, those school districts get more money than the other districts. What if we took some of that money and gave it to the districts that weren't doing so well? Here's what Randy ward had to say when it came to that idea about redistributing the wealth. .

NEW SPEAKER: I can tell you how that idea fell off the table, plopped off the table. And I'm not sure you would get the kind of participation from some of these parents and foundations if they knew some of the money was going in other places beyond their own neighborhoods and communities. It would be nice if we were so idealistic and community based, but sometimes our communities very close to us. Meaning, you know, not -- meaning our school and our district (REPEAT LAST PHRASE) our county.

FARYON: Now, Randal ward mentioned foundations, that's the other additional layer of funding. You've got three things going on in a lot of districts. It's private founds, parents who give students extra money, this extra revenue that they can raise, public money that they can raise through property taxes, and then the third thing is sort of this parcel tax, this extra tax that neighborhoods, and again they tend to be neighborhoods that have more money, agree to pay for their school districts.

CAVANAUGH: What about the idea of the state reducing the amount of money that it gives to these excessive tax districts? Has anyone talked about that?

FARYON: Yes, actually, the legislature has done that twice. Recently. I believe last year it was about a six hundred and 50 million dollars or so in extra public tax money that was raised by these districts. Now, the state didn't -- wasn't able to take all of this money away or redistrict it, but they said accident okay, you know what we're gonna do? We're gonna cut some of this special money that we give to school districts, categorical funds and out of that six hundred and 50 million, they cut about a hundred million dollars in total. So they took a little bit of the money, they skimmed it off the top, as an acknowledgment to say, yeah, this might not be entirely fair.

CAVANAUGH: But it doesn't solve the problem.

FARYON: No.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the legislature -- the California assembly is working on some legislation that aims to simplify as you call it, this complicated fund -- education funding formula, that we have in the state. What would the legislation do?

FARYON: Right now, funding is based primarily on something like attendance, per pupil funding, this revenue limit, then there are all these other categories of you get funding if you do this, and if you do that, and no one really understands it. This legislation would say, let's give -- they're sort of like block grants in four different areas so we'll be able to follow the money. You get money for these four different areas, gives the districts a little more control, simplification and ultimately -- again, I'll tell you I don't know exactly how this is gonna work, and I'm not sure from the bill how this is gonna work. But what we're told by the state superintendent is that in the long run, simplifying it in this way could make it more equitable. That the bill, its ultimate goal is to give cool districts money based on need. So when we talk about equitable and fairness, the consensus, it might not mean that every school district gets the same amount of money, but they get the amount of money they need to education the kids that are in $districts, depending on the needs of that distribution. There's nothing specifically in the bill with regard to basic aid or these excess tax districts. But when I asked the superintendent Torlakson sort of over all, you know, how do you sit with this? With this whole kind of inequity? And I just want to play you another clip from him in terms of his first reaction to this inequity, and in the long run what he hopes will happen.

NEW SPEAKER: I've been working closely with the legislature, and I've been working closely with the governor in terms of pushing for a education funding system that is more fair, more equal. You don't get there by taking money from a district that already has an ample funding and try to split it out and spread it around. That's just gonna create turmoil and inflict between legislatures and different regions of the state, and between school districts in different regions of the state.

CAVANAUGH: I see.

FARYON: So he's not for sharing the wealth as well.

CAVANAUGH: But he is working with the legislature on that piece of legislation you just described.

FARYON: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Now, one of the first sentences in your piece, at KPBS.org on this, is that this is part of an ongoing investigation into education funding that you're undertaking. What will you be looking at next?

FARYON: We're looking at attendance. As I sort of alluded to earlier, a big part of the funding formula now is based on attendance, basically how much money do you get per student as long as that student is sitting in your classroom? And again, we're finding some pretty interesting inequities in terms of how that system works.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Joanne. I've been speaking with KPBS reporter Joanne Faryon. If you would like to see a map of the excessive tax districts in California in San Diego, and of course read that article, you can any on line at KPBS.org. Thanks again, Joanne.

FARYON: Thanks Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Coming up, they say money changes everything. At San Diego Unified school district, a little extra money seems to be changing the relationship between the School Board and the teachers' union. And later, retiring president Steven weber talks about his 15 years at SDSU. It's 1220, this is KPBS Midday Edition.

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