By Barbara Grady

Underpaid teachers, kids wishing they had counselors to talk with and crowded classrooms where students learning English don’t get enough help could all be in the past for Oakland schools if the governor’s plan for reforming education funding prevails.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula being debated in the state legislature would boost funding for all school districts, but give substantially more per pupil funding for students who are low income, are English learners or who are in foster care. Also, school districts with concentrations of such students would get an additional bonus.

For Oakland, this could mean as much as much as $3,860 more per student in seven years from now, according to state figures – half again as much as Oakland receives per pupil now. If it gets passed by the legislature before June 30, it could mean a boost of $271 per student right away in September.

So much is at stake for Oakland schools, that students at Castlemont and Skyline High Schools asked three legislators representing Oakland, the county education superintendnet and the Oakland acting superintendent-elect to commit to supporting the measure and work for its passage. Inviting them to a youth event at Castlemont High School on Wednesday, they received those commitments from assistants to Rep. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley and Oakland), Rep. Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) and Alameda County Education Superintendent Sheila Jordan and personally from Dr. Gary Yee, superintendent-elect of Oakland. They all listened to the students.

“To me, it seems very important,” said Precious Brazil, one of the student campaigners and a sophomore at Castlemont. “I was a foster youth for a while. I feel that is I had support when I was going though my situation, I would have done better in school.”

Yee, who will become acting superintendent on June 30, not only committed to advoate for the measure but said he’s arranged to meet with legislators next week to convince them of its importance.

He asked Precious what she would propose the district spend new money on.

“Definitely guidance counselors,” she said.

Fela Thomas of Youth Together, which helped organize the students, said the prospect of so much more money for schools could be life-changing for the community.

“We live in a city where people always get the short end of the stick,” he said.

The students also asked a staff assistant to Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley and Oakland) and Oakland Education Association president Trish Gorham for commitments to support the governor’s measure. They each gave partial support, but not complete, with a staff member from Hancock’s office explaining the senator wants to study the concentration factor more.

The Local Control Funding Formula would change what is now a hodgepodge formula, in which the state pays schools on a per pupil basis that differs district to district and then also pays categorical funds, or money earmarked for specific purposes such as teacher training or certain types of instruction.

In the new formula, the state would pay a basic amount per student and then add a 35 percent supplement for each student who is low income, a foster child or an English learner. Districts in which more than half the students fit these three demographics would also get “concentration grants” of another 35 percent. Low income is defined as eligible for the federal Free and Reduced Lunch program.

Passage of the Local Control Funding Formula is not a sure thing, however, as legislators have been wrangling in hot debate over it this past week. Some legislators representing wealthier districts see the formula as potentially damaging to their districts in that they say they would get less per pupil. The governor and the legislative budget office dispute that saying funding would be slightly raised for all districts.

Local education activists say this is a watershed moment in education and in civil rights.

“We are at a critical point, a critical juncture in California,” said Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Education Trust-West, speaking a few weeks ago on a panel organized by New America Media about the proposed new formula. “The governor came in and said our funding system is inequitable” and proposed to replace it.

Jonathan Kaplan, senior policy analyst with the California Budget Project said that with the Local Control Funding Formula, the governor proposes “fundamental reform” of a kind not seen for three decades in California.

“All observers agree this funding system would make education funding more transparent and more rational. Some would argue and I would agree it makes it more equitable,” Kaplan said at the New America Media forum.

The aspect that legislators are in disagreement over is primarily the “concentration grant” proposal in which districts where 50 percent or more of the student population is disadvantaged, or low income, in foster care or English learners, get an additional boost. Wealthier district say that aspect would mean their funding would be relatively lower. Part of the concern is that categorical funding would disappear under the new formula and for many districts, rich and poor, categorical funding currently makes up significant portions of revenue.

Gov. Brown, however, has said that the point of the legislation is to bring up students who have not had the chances that most students do.

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