California Bus Funds Restored, But Districts Must Cut Budgets Elsewhere

Last Updated: February 23, 2012

This article appeared in the February 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

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After a major outcry from educators and families, Governor Jerry Brown has signed legislation that restores transportation funding for districts for this year and has committed to preserve it for next year. Brown had authorized eliminating $248 million for buses across the state as part of automatic “trigger cuts” stemming from reduced revenue projections. (See January RSFN coverage here.)

An amendment to a current bill, SB 81, was expedited through the legislature and signed by Brown earlier this month. The amendment replaced the $248 million in transportation cuts with an across-the-board reduction for all school districts. Local administration will have flexibility to determine where to cut the loss of $42 per student for the remainder of the school year.

Dave Walrath, who represents the Small School Districts Association in Santa Rosa, said he would like to thank the Senate Budget Committee for amending the bill to address the “discriminatory” cut made to urban and rural school districts serving high numbers of children from low-income families and children needing special education transportation. “Senate Bill 81 treats all districts equitably as the state struggles — and school districts struggle — with lower-than-anticipated income,” said Walrath. “For most rural school districts, there is not subsidized public transportation…. Consequently, the school bus, the parents or walking are the only means for these children to attend school.”

New funding formula proposed

Governor Brown is now proposing to overhaul the school finance formula in the state, which his administration has called “too complex, administratively costly and inequitable.” His proposal is based on an approach known as a “weighted pupil funding formula,” which largely eliminates dedicated funding streams for programs and operates similar to a block grant. If the new formula is approved by the Legislature, some districts would still eventually see their funding reduced over a six-year period. Brown’s proposal would still allocate funds to districts, not schools, which has been a notable deviation in the weighted funding approach from current systems.

School fees case revived

In a related legal development, the Los Angeles Superior Court has allowed a lawsuit over school fees against the state to move forward. Districts in California — and many other states — have initiated fees for various activities to cover funding deficits. But a California state Supreme Court ruling bans all fees as a violation of the state constitution’s guarantee of free public education. (See previous RSFN coverage here and here.)

In 2010, an investigation revealed numerous districts charging fees, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California filed a lawsuit on behalf of students in the state. That suit was settled on the assurance that the state would enforce the fee ban through new legislation establishing a mechanism to do so. Governor Brown vetoed the legislation and a new suit was filed.

The state argued for dismissal of the suit, saying that the various defendants — State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, the California State Board of Education, the state Department of Education, and the California Attorney General’s Office — were not responsible for enforcing the ban. The Superior Court disagreed as to the California Department of Education and will hold hearings next month.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Mark Rosenbaum had said dismissal of the ACLU’s latest lawsuit “would be a green light for districts to thumb their nose at our 130-year system of free schools, ending any real hope already-disadvantaged students have of using the public schools to achieve the American Dream.” He added: “We’ve documented that tens of thousands of children are being charged to receive books and other educational materials in their classes, resulting in a pay-to-go-to-school system, placing the brunt of our state’s budget burdens on innocent children. This is a dual school system that would make Horace Mann shudder.”

Read more:

Local coverage on the restoration of transportation funding and Brown’s new funding proposal:

Read a description of the rural bus ride in California here:

Read about the school fee lawsuit here:

Read more from the February 2012 Rural Policy Matters.