California's funding for school buildings needs an overhaul
San Francisco Chronicle, June 26, 2014 | Updated: June 26, 2014 10:34pm
Can California K-12 school districts provide healthy, safe and educationally modern facilities that promote student achievement with no state funding? Or does state support and involvement in local school facilities need a remodeling of its own?
Evidence on both is clear: Low-wealth and high-need school districts can't do it without state assistance. And the state's K-12 School Facility Program needs an overhaul.
Gov. Jerry Brown seems to agree. In his recent budget message, he signaled he wants fundamental changes. He has noted the inherent unfairness of the state's competitive "first-in, first-out" funding approach that favors large, wealthier school districts with the staffing to assemble the complicated facility project funding requests.
Nevertheless, the Legislature is moving forward with AB2235 (the Kindergarten-University Public Education Facilities Bond Act of 2014), proposing only minor tinkering to the program.
In May, the bill passed unanimously out of the Assembly and went over to the state Senate, where the Education and the Governance and Finance committees also passed the bill. The bill has yet to declare a funding amount, but committee members support the need for K-12 school facility funding.
But, Senate Education Committee members have raised strong concerns about the measure's "same ol', same ol' " approach to distributing the funds. AB2235 does almost nothing to refocus the program on a more needs-based approach.
Next the bill heads to the Legislature for debate - and discussion with the governor.
Brown and the Senate Education Committee are right: We can spend our school facility money much more wisely. The time is ripe to revamp California's facility funding program.
My organization has studied California and other states to provide guidance. We suggest:
Target prioritized projects. All school districts applying for state school construction and renovation funds should have a district-wide facility master plan that studies all their facilities and includes a locally generated list of prioritized projects.
Disburse state funds fairly and equitably. Each school district should have an annually adjusted "needs index" calculated that helps equalize its ability to pay. For example, a wealthy school district might get 20 percent of its project paid for by the state, while a school district serving many more low-income students might get 85 percent. At least 20 other states use a sliding scale approach for school facilities funding.
Incorporate accountability levers. To qualify for state facility funds, school district plans should demonstrate a good faith effort to adequately maintain their buildings. Designs should incorporate common energy-saving "green-building" techniques that reduce operational costs and promote health.
Streamline the state review and approval process. The state should help save costs and add efficiencies to local districts, as that protects the health and safety of children.
Implementing these changes will ensure a more strategic and efficient state role for ensuring safe, healthy and high-quality classrooms for all California children. We don't have the resources - natural, financial or human - to do otherwise.
Jeff Vincent is deputy director of the Center for Cities and Schools at UC Berkeley.