2008 Archive

Professor Liu Promotes California School Finance Reform

Goodwin Liu

Facing a $14.5 billion budget deficit and hefty cuts in education, this may seem like an odd time for California to launch into school finance reform. But Boalt education policy expert Goodwin Liu sees an ideal climate for transforming how the state funds its public schools.

"There will inevitably be new money in the system but without reform it won't make a lasting difference," says Liu, an assistant professor and co-director of Boalt's Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity and Diversity. "The issue is if we're going to continue to spend unwisely or more efficiently. Last year the governor said 2008 would be the year of education reform and this is a good time to engage in school finance, because it's important to do it when there's an austere budget. When there's a lot of money, there's no appetite for reform."

Working with education authorities Michael Kirst and Alan Bersin, Liu has spent much of the past month presenting their reform ideas. He co-authored an op-ed with them for the Sacramento Bee, presented their ideas at a major seminar for state policymakers, and testified before the state's Assembly Education Committee on AB 586, which expresses the legislature's intent to restructure how schools are financed. Kirst is an emeritus professor of education and business administration at Stanford, and Bersin is a former state secretary of education and a current member of the California Board of Education.

"We'll keep meeting with policymakers and be a resource for them as they develop and refine proposals for transforming the system," says Liu, a former Rhodes Scholar. "This is the beginning of a long process, and we're not going to solve it or pass major legislation in a month or two. But that's all the more reason to keep plugging away at this important issue."

Recently named one of the Emerging Scholars of 2008 by "Diverse Issues in Higher Education," Liu calls California's school finance system "deeply flawed." He says districts receive revenue through complex formulas that generate costly compliance burdens, onerous paperwork, and rampant confusion—and that limit school officials' ability to meet local needs.

Liu's group urges four main areas of reform: (1) student needs should drive how revenue is distributed, giving more money to districts with more disadvantaged students; (2) allocations should be adjusted for differences in regional costs; (3) the funding system should be simple, transparent and easy to understand; (4) reforms should apply only to new money without reducing any district's current revenue.

To implement these ideas, the proposal calls for giving each district base funding that allows an "average" child to meet state learning standards, keeping its current approach to special education, and adding a targeted funding program to meet the additional needs of low-income students and English learners.

"I think people have responded to our work because the three of us represent very different perspectives," Liu says. "Alan was a superintendent, Mike is a respected figure among the major education groups, and I bring a civil rights angle from my role at the Warren Institute. We have three disparate viewpoints but agree on this important reform."

A former special assistant to the U.S. Department of Education deputy secretary and higher education senior program officer for AmeriCorps, Liu emphasizes that his group's reform proposal will not exacerbate the current state budget crisis.

"We're not calling for any expenditure now," Liu says. "We're just saying the governor and legislature should reorganize the finance system. The Assembly Education Committee seems to understand that the current budget challenges do not preclude fundamental school finance reform. In fact, legislators know from past experience that if you wait for a good budget year there's no appetite for creating reform, just for creating new programs."

— By Andrew Cohen 2/6/2008