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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Good Legislation: Freeing Up Education Money

State Senator Alan Lowenthal has certainly sponsored some questionable legislation, two pieces of Lowenthal's work this year I have previously labelled Dumbest and More Dumb. But if his SB 1396, co-authored with his ex-wife Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, passes he will be the author of a groundbreaking pilot program that can change the future of education in our state.

If it becomes law SB 1396 would initiate a three year pilot program for three school districts, at this point Long Beach Unified School District, Fresno Unified School District and Garden Grove Unified School District. Under the pilot program the State Schools Superintendent would convert funding for the Districts for "categorical education programs" to block grants. In short, the bill would eliminate state spending mandates for the Districts and allow the local boards of education and Superintendents determine how those funds can best be spent within their districts to improve student education.

This program is the first step to return control of education to the local communities, putting more responsibility for education funding and programs with the Districts, and therefore with the parents and residents within the Districts. This legislation greatly diminishes the control of the state government and bureaucracy, which means it also diminishes the influence and control of the California Teachers Association and other unions representing education employees. This legislation will allow Long Beach, Fresno and Garden Grove to show Sacramento, and the nation, that the closer to the source government revenue is controlled the more efficiently it is used.

As part of the legislation the districts must show measurable improvement in API scores, graduation rates and students headed off to college. The funds are not just going to be dumped on the districts with a "good luck, see you in three years." As well they will still have to adhere to any federal spending mandates tied to any federal funds received. By setting the goals and having the ability to apply spending where needed to meet those goals however allows significant more opportunity for success than having to meet goals set from the state with mandated spending by a bureaucracy that has no idea what local needs may be.

Long Beach Unified is on the record as proposing the legislation, and since the Lowenthals' districts cover areas of Long Beach Unified, Bonnie was a member of the LBUSD Board of Education before her election to the Long Beach City Council. The ties between the Lowenthals and LBUSD are long and deep. A very progressive school district, LBUSD was first in the nation to require every student in elementary, and then middle, school wear a uniform every day, required students reach benchmark reading levels at 3rd and 8th grades, required students with multiple fails to repeat 8th grade, and has been a finalist for the Broad Award several times, winning once. The partnership between the Lowenthals and LBUSD is a natural for this legislation impacting Long Beach.

Education reform is extremely difficult to achieve given the nature of funding for districts, they raise no funds on their own but rather receive funding from the state and/or federal government directly. Because their revenues are filtered through the state the revenues are able to be controlled by the state. Through the years special projects and agendas have resulted in funding mandates for revenues sent to districts. As more and more mandates are placed upon the revenues local school districts have less and less control over their budgets. Even how teachers can be laid off or let go due to poor performance or egregious actions is dictated by the State Code of Education, handcuffing the ability of Districts to able shift personnel and needs for their students. Needless to say this control by the state over employment also prohibits school districts from creating and utilizing performance criteria for teacher evaluations; therefore the teachers you get and that stay through good times and bad are the ones there the longest, which means some of the best will be left behind when layoffs occur.

Across the country there has been significant moves by states to remove power from the state capitals and return it to the local districts, to dilute the power of the state and local teachers' unions and their strong influence on budgets and policy. Florida came very close to a major education overhaul until the bill was vetoed by Governor Crist because of politics and his campaign for U.S. Senator. That California is considering a change in funding for school districts and decentralizing the budgetary control is a major step for not only our state but for the nation.

I called out Senator Lowenthal for his legislation to out law parking and to require carbon monoxide detectors in all homes, it is only right that I laud him for legislation that unwinds state spending mandates and allows school districts the freedom to allocate funds as needed within their districts, not as dictated by Sacramento. Well done Lowenthals, let's hope your fellow members of the Senate and Assembly agree with you.

DCS 04212010

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