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California boosts school funds, aims to help poorest districts

By Sharon Bernstein

(Reuters) - California will spend an extra $2.9 billion on public education over the next two years thanks to higher-than-expected revenue, money that could help Governor Jerry Brown win support for his plan to funnel funds to the state's poorest districts.

Brown announced the boost in spending on Tuesday as part of the annual mid-year revision of the state's budget projections, a ritual in California that marks the beginning of the legislative season for fighting over the next year's spending plan.

The extra money - mostly the result of higher property tax revenue from an improving housing market and a better general economy - could help Brown win support for his quest to dramatically reform the way California pays for education. It would send more money to the poorest school districts and allow local officials to spend the funds as they see fit.

The plan has drawn criticism from suburban school districts and legislators on both sides of the aisle, who say it would leave communities with pockets of middle and upper-income residents with less money than they would have had under the state's old funding system.

Brown's plan calls for a base grant to all school districts for each registered student, but it would also give extra money to students who are poor, don't speak English well, or live in areas with high concentrations of people considered disadvantaged.

"Everybody is going to do better," Brown, a Democrat, said in presenting the plan on Tuesday. "But some are going to do considerably better."

The idea that some districts would wind up with less money under Brown's plan than they would have had under the state's old system led to a backlash among Democrats and Republicans alike.

In addition, school districts complained they would have little money for adult education under the plan, and that some items like teacher training would have to be paid for out of the new base grants, possibly reducing the amount of funding available for teaching students.

MORE FUNDING

But Brown's new proposal offers concessions to address some of the concerns.

Among them are delays in any changes to funding for adult education and $1 billion for teacher training, instructional materials and other costs of implementing new standards.

The additional funds leave Brown better situated to negotiate with legislators who want more money allocated to the base grants, so that no school district would be left with less money than it would have otherwise received.

Moments after Brown presented his May budget revision, Assembly Speaker John Perez, a Democrat, said lawmakers would be likely to reach a deal with Brown despite the differences in their plans, and that there would be a way to lift spending for all schools over time.

Skeptics, including many in the legislature, had also complained that the plan did not require enough oversight of how the school districts would spend the money.

The new plan addresses that issue as well, Brown said, requiring greater transparency on spending by local districts.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Steve Orlofsky)

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