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Facing California's top challenge

Published: Sunday, February 3, 2013 at 8:37 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, February 3, 2013 at 8:37 p.m.

If you want to know the biggest challenge facing California over the next couple of decades, let these numbers guide your thinking:

Between 2010 and 2020, the number of people between the ages of 65 and 74 will spike by 65 percent. The number over age 75 will grow by more than a third.

From 1970 through 2010, there were about 20 Californians over 65 for every 100 of working age. By 2040, that ratio will reach 38 to 100. In other words, it will just about double.

About half of the 6.2 million children attending school in California come from low-income families, and about a quarter come from homes in which English is not spoken.

Those numbers come from, respectively, population projections of the Legislative Analyst's Office, USC demographers and the State Department of Education.

Mix them all together and they lead to an inescapable conclusion: If the economy is going to have any hope of supporting an aging population, tomorrow's workers are going to have to be very productive.

And for that to happen, a great many kids from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to have to find a place in an economy that demands educated workers.

It is a really different world from what it was even 20 or 30 years ago, says Ted Lempert, president of the Oakland-based advocacy group Children Now. It's not going to work any more just to make sure that 20 percent of the kids are getting a good education.

Lempert and his organization are part of a coalition advocating for Gov. Jerry Brown's budget proposal to simplify school funding, give local school boards more discretion on how to spend it, and provide supplemental funds to schools that have the greatest concentrations of students with economic and cultural challenges.

He told me this week he's been disappointed that much of the initial response to Brown's proposal has focused on a discussion of winners and losers.

In fact, he said, the core idea is one that the public broadly understands. They get that some kids have more challenges, and that you can provide them with a little extra support, he said. I'm not sure that idea is as controversial as some people try to make it.

Lempert urges educators around the state, particularly those in suburban school districts most concerned about being losers, to look at the bigger picture.

The supplemental funding based on student characteristics, he notes, is only part of a proposed, long-overdue restructuring of California school financing.

Here's how Michael Krist, president of the state Board of Education, describes the status quo: The current system is broken. It's so convoluted and complex and inequitable that it can't be fixed. Each district gets a base amount of funding, called its revenue limit, a mix of local property taxes and state funds that is determined by enrollment, historical funding levels and its mix of elementary and secondary schools.

Then they get funds from some or all of 60 categorical sources earmarked for specific programs. As a result, per-pupil funding can vary by thousands of dollars between districts and even between schools within a district.

Brown proposes to virtually eliminate categorical programs, to fold that money into base funding for districts, and to let local school boards decide how to best spend it based on their needs.

For years, Lempert accurately notes, district officials have begged the state for both more money and more local control. This proposal, he says, does both.

The base grows. No one's losing. In general, everyone is going to get more, he says. Suburban districts can look at this and say, 'If there wasn't this proposal, I'd be getting even more.' But they're getting local control, which they've been clamoring for decades.

He also points out that the purpose of many of the state categorical programs has been to direct more money toward students who have the greatest educational challenges.

In other words, Lempert argues, there's nothing new about Brown's proposal to target more resources to where they are most needed.

We've been trying for decades to get money to these kids through categoricals, he said. What the governor is trying to do is to say let's make work the goals we've always said we wanted more local control, and more money to kids in need. There are lots of details to be worked out, lots of bureaucratic weeds to be waded through, but the big picture couldn't be any bigger.

It's not an exaggeration to say that future of civilization in California depends upon it.

Timm Herdt is a columnist for the Ventura County Star.

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