Sacramento’s Stupid Argument Over Prop 98

Jerry Brown Sitting at table

Sacramento no longer fights about schools. It fights about school formulas.

Consider the current behind-the-scenes -- and occasionally public -- fight that the legislature non-partisan analyst Mac Taylor is waging with legislative staffers and Gov. Jerry Brown's team over California's famously complex education funding formula, Proposition 98.

Now let's stipulate here that California's schools need help -- in all kinds of ways. The school funding should be revamped. School districts and individual schools need more control over funding. Schools need better teachers and higher standards and more resources of all kinds for students.

Those are all important things. And this dispute isn't about any of them.

It's about the Prop 98 formula -- not the whole formula (which is made of three big intersecting formulas), but one part of the larger formula called the maintenance factor.

I won't bore you with the details; they are so complicated that few know what they are, and those who do know the details can't agree upon what they mean (the maintenance factor has sparked legislation for years).

Essentially, Gov. Brown -- with the ascent of the legislature -- is making assumptions about the formula that may produce two results he desperately needs. Those assumptions ratchet up the amount of money schools would be owed under the formula in his temporary tax initiative passes. And they ratchet down the money severely if his temporary tax initiative fails.

This helps Brown because it appears to raise the stakes for his measure in a way that may help it win support.

Taylor, the nonpartisan analyst, says those assumptions "produce unreasonable outcomes for schools and the rest of the state budget," essentially making an unpredictable and volatile formula even more unpredictable and volatile.

In essence, Taylor is saying that Brown and the Democrats are making hostages out of school funding -- or at least one aspect of the formula -- unnecessarily.

Who's right?

Who knows? And more important, who cares?

The meaning of the argument is that our funding system for the most important government function -- schools -- is so complicated and broken that no one knows what it means. We shouldn't be arguing over Prop 98 and the maintenance factor.

We should be abolishing it, and a host of similar formulas that make the budget unmanageable.

School funding should be primarily local; any funding at the state level should be delivered in simple, predictable ways, based on decisions made by people (not formulas) who are trying to match funding to actual school needs. The Prop 98 formula has nothing to do with the needs of schools, educators and students.

A simple system would allow the pubic to weigh in. Right now, the public has nothing to contribute to a stupid fight over a complicated formula.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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