For the past few years, a small group of advocates for equitable school construction has been examining how school districts with small tax bases and low-income families can get a bigger share of state funding to upgrade school facilities.

Now, they say, there is an opportunity to make that happen.

On April 10, the Assembly Education Committee took the first step, by passing Assembly Bill 48, toward placing two K-12 and community college construction bonds of as-yet undetermined size before voters in 2020 and in 2022. Before the vote, representatives of many education groups and school districts voiced support.

The committee’s chairman, Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, is championing the move, citing a huge unmet need for upgrading and building schools. Three years ago, voters passed Proposition 51, a $9 billion bond, of which $7 billion was earmarked for K-12 districts, but all of that money has since been divvied up.

The issue is timely because while the state spends billions to support the operations of K-12 schools, building construction is funded largely by bonds through local property taxes. A new plan to ask the public to support a bond to pay for school construction is prompting discussion on just how the money should be allocated.

The biggest question is whether the state should change the current “first-come first-served” system of matching grants to districts to one that targets money to the neediest districts.

Advocates for reform want the next bond issue to ensure that all California students have access to safe, up-to-date, fully equipped schools and classrooms, regardless of where they live. They want the Legislature to do for facilities funding what it did for districts’ operating revenue seven years ago when, prodded by former Gov. Jerry Brown, it passed the Local Control Funding Formula.

The funding formula steers extra money to districts based on their enrollment of English learners and low-income, homeless and foster children, recognizing that these students deserve more aid. Advocates want more state bond money to go to school districts that have comparatively less taxable property to make it easier for them to pay for building upgrades.

“If the state is serious about ending the cycle of poverty and closing the achievement gap, it has to address the issue of facilities funding,” says Seth Heeren, assistant superintendent of business services for the San Jacinto Unified, an 11,000-student district in Riverside County. Despite soaring property values in much of the state, property values in some areas remain depressed, yet to recover fully from the Great Recession. The result is that his district and others in the Inland Empire east of Los Angeles have had difficulty raising money vitally needed for school improvements, he said. It got some help with new construction from $25 million in state hardship aid over the two decades ending in 2017.

A school’s condition makes a difference to students; it sends clear signals whether they should feel welcome, said Justine Santos, lead student organizer in Oakland for Californians for Justice, a statewide nonprofit that develops student leadership and activism skills among minority students. “When a school looks really clean, replaces broken chairs and pays attention to bathrooms, students say, ‘They care about our hygiene and comfort,’” she said

For the 2020 bond, draft language of AB 48 would tinker with reform; it would provide more state hardship aid for districts with small tax bases, as well as more technical help for small districts. Advocates for bigger changes are eyeing the 2022 bond instead.

“We’d like to see language in AB 48 that commits the state to remedy modernization funding,” said Jeff Vincent, one of the advocates for change. Vincent co-directs the Center for Cities + Schools at UC Berkeley. “If the Legislature moves forward without fixing inequities in funding, it will be doing a huge disservice to school districts and children in low-wealth communities.”

Others in the informal group advocating change are Rick Simpson, a power broker in the Legislature as an education adviser to nine Assembly speakers before retiring; Stephen English, founding co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization, and Bill Savidge, a former executive with the State Allocation Board, which administers state construction and modernization bonds.

Documented inequalities

Last year, Vincent co-authored “Financing School Facilities in California: A Ten-Year Perspective,” a report for Getting Down to Facts, a multi-study research project on California school governance, funding and staffing policies that Stanford University and the university-affiliated research nonprofit PACE jointly produced. In his study, Vincent provided the most extensive data to date documenting inequalities in the formula for allocating state money for construction projects under the state’s School Facilities Program.

“Our analysis of the last 20 years of school facilities funding found tremendous inequities,” Vincent said. “Districts with higher property values, higher community incomes and fewer low-income students received the most state funding to modernize their schools.”

The California Supreme Court ruled a half-century ago in the Serrano lawsuits, initiated by John Serrano and other public school parents in Los Angeles, that disparities in school districts’ property wealth created unconstitutionally unequal opportunities for students. The Serrano case didn’t apply to school facilities, which districts mostly pay for through local bonds, with state help, but there are similar inequalities.

Between 1998 and 2016, the state provided $42 billion of the $166 billion that school districts raised for new construction and modernization, according to Vincent’s report.

Vincent found that the structure of the state’s facilities program produces disparities, mainly in the distribution of money for modernization projects. The advantage has gone to wealthy districts with high assessed property value. State funding for modernization in particular “is systematically related to district size and wealth,” Vincent wrote.

The first-come, first-served basis for funding under the School Facilities Program particularly has disadvantaged small school districts, which usually lack knowledge of state regulations and staff to manage building projects. About 60 percent of the state’s districts enroll fewer than 2,500 students. Of the 125 that received no modernization grants from the state for decades, most were small districts.

Vincent’s analysis distinguishes the impact of state funding for new construction, where the state provides a 50 percent matching grant, from funding for school renovation, where the state puts up 60 percent.

Vincent found that new construction dollars were fairly evenly distributed across the state among poor and rich districts. The most overcrowded and financially strapped districts particularly benefited from the state’s hardship fund, which made up about 10 percent of the state’s funding.

But the modernization program produced inequities because it hasn’t recognized the financial burdens of districts with low property values and low family incomes. Many of those districts have dilapidated buildings but they can’t afford to issue bonds that wealthier districts can. The result is that the less wealthy districts miss out on getting more of the state’s matching money.

For districts like Fresno Unified, in the Central Valley, where its 108 schools average over 50 years old, and the assessed property value per student is about a third of the state median, funds are used to fix buildings. “We end up spending the bulk of money updating infrastructure — plumbing, electrical, irrigation systems — that’s what we are worried about — and less on better learning environments,” said Karin Temple, Fresno Unified’s chief operating officer. And when the district asks the public to approve borrowing money for those projects, they limit the ask to what the community can afford, not what schools fully need, she said.

The state’s formula favors wealthier districts by giving more state funding to those that can borrow more. Vincent’s analysis substantiated the impact. The bottom fifth of districts, averaging $900,000 in taxable property per student, received an average of $661 per student in modernization aid from 1998-2017. The top 20 percent of districts, with an average of $2.4 million in taxable property per student, averaged eight times that much — $5,361 per student — over that time.

For example, Carlsbad Unified in San Diego County, with $2 million per student in assessed property value got nearly $2,000 per student in state aid to upgrade its buildings while San Jacinto Unified, which has much less taxable property ($256,000 per student) got just over $1,000 per student in aid. Both districts enroll about 11,000 students.

Former Gov. Jerry Brown repeatedly raised the same concerns as Vincent and called for funding changes. After talks with education groups and legislators broke down, the powerful Coalition for Adequate School Housing or CASH, an organization of school districts and vested interests — construction firms, engineers and architects — wrote Prop. 51 and placed it on the 2016 ballot. Brown’s opposition marked the first time a governor had opposed a statewide school construction bond.

Picking up on Brown’s support for more equity in school building, Vincent proposes to pattern modernization assistance after the Local Control Funding Formula. He proposes giving every district a uniform base grant per student, augmented by additional dollars based on a combination of a district’s assessed value and either its median household income or percentage of high-needs students.

David Walrath, the legislative advocate for CASH, says that its leaders acknowledge the disparities that Vincent and others are raising, but other possible solutions should be explored. The state could reserve funding for small districts, increase the set-aside for hardship or fund modernization based on what’s needed to bring all school buildings up to standard, not on a district’s assessed value, he said.

These decisions will take time and shouldn’t stand in the way of putting the first bond to voters next March, Walrath said.

But Vincent said the bill should offer more than an empty promise: It should commit the state to study and revise the formula for state modernization funding. “California’s leaders must decide whether and how they will maintain the state’s longstanding commitment to ensure safe, adequate and appropriate learning environments for all of its 6 million students,” he said.

Story originally published by EdSource.

John Fensterwald