By Mackenzie Mays
SACRAMENTO — In a rare move, civil rights groups are challenging statewide school bond legislation because they say California's formula for awarding construction money benefits wealthier school districts more than poor areas that may need upgrades the most.
A bill that would place a $13 billion bond to upgrade K-12 and community college facilities on the 2020 ballot and another bond before voters in 2022 is facing equity concerns from organizations that include the American Civil Liberties Union, Public Advocates and the Advancement Project.
"Because much of the funding provided by the state is provided as a match for locally raised funds, wealthier districts that are better able to raise local funds receive a disproportionate share of state funding," the ACLU and Public Advocates say in a joint letter to Assemblyman Patrick O'Donnell (D-Long Beach), the bill's author. "A recent report found that districts receiving the least state funds from the facilities program have greater proportions of high-need students as defined by the Local Control Funding Formula."
The groups have taken a neutral position on CA AB48 (19R) but say they would lend their support if lawmakers vow to reform the state's School Facility Program in time for the proposed 2022 ballot measure.
The School Facility Program typically provides funds from state bonds to school districts that float local bonds, with a 50/50 match for new construction. Funding is given on a first-come, first-serve basis.
The state already exempts some school districts that face financial hardships, and provides up to 100 percent of the funding for some districts that can't provide their local match, instead of just half.
Nonetheless, advocates say the existing system still leads to wealthier districts getting an unfair share of state money, because they have more willing taxpayers and the staff to apply for the funds.
"The League has supported every school bond measure for the last 30 years. However, we have long been concerned about some of the inequities we find in the funding formula, for facility modernization particularly," said Gloria Chun Hoo, first vice president for the League of Women Voters, whose organization has also joined calls for reform.
Districts with higher property values and fewer low-income students have received the bulk of state funding to modernize schools, according to a Getting Down to Facts report issued last year by Stanford University and Policy Analysis for California Education.
But equity advocates haven't offered an alternative method that they believe is more fair.
"We have not proposed a specific alternative but it's very clear that the way we're doing it now is not equitable. All we're asking for is a statement of legislative intent to look at the equity issue and how to distribute money from the 2022 bonds," Kathy Sher, legislative attorney for the ACLU, told POLITICO Tuesday.
O'Donnell told POLITICO that one proposed alternative is uniform per-student funding, regardless of need, which he sees as a less equitable solution.
"The proposals I've seen thus far would really create more inequity than equity. What we want to ensure is that if someone is going to get money for a district, they have to have need," he said. "There's good reasons for not doling it out on a per-student basis."
O'Donnell, chairman of the Assembly Education Committee, said that districts without construction needs might sock away bond money if the state handed it out based on student enrollment rather than requiring locals to match. He said it would be a "very poor fiscal practice" to provide bond money that way.
O'Donnell says he's met with opponents of the bill and has offered to do so again. He is open to future amendments but seems unconvinced that big changes are needed before a bond can make it on the 2020 ballot.
AB 48 would also provide more state dollars for districts with small tax bases and help small districts with technical support during the application process.
Sher acknowledged that assistance but said "it's clear that more needs to be done."
O'Donnell said that equity for districts facing financial and facility problems are already considered in state policy.
"If there's inequity, I want to address it. But inequity is addressed in existing law and in AB 48. What I'm trying to understand is what they see as the problem," he said about critics of his bill. "School facilities are tremendously complex and not everybody understands them. These individuals don't have a lot of experience in this world."
Sen. Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles) has asked O'Donnell to consider amendments to the bill.
"I do believe I've seen enough to raise concerns about equity ... the school facilities funding formulas are not equitable, as applied to high wealth and low wealth districts," Durazo said during a Senate Education Committee last week. "Issues of equity come up, and they come up much too late in the game. We've got to be much more deliberate and conscious in addressing that, especially when there's funding involved."
The bill was approved by the Senate Education Committee last week after clearing the Assembly floor in May. It now heads to the Senate Governance and Finance Committee.