By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO (Reuters) - A controversial plan to shift billions of dollars in education funding toward the poorest school districts and away from wealthier ones is fast becoming a personal crusade for California Governor Jerry Brown, who this week promised "the battle of their lives" to legislators who dare to oppose it.
Brown's program, among the most aggressive to date of efforts to re-think the way education dollars are distributed, would also allow local administrators to spend their money as they see fit - a vast change from the current system and one with particular appeal for education reformers and many Republicans.
"This is not a legislative measure - this is a cause," Brown said on Wednesday. "This is about the kids and their families."
The proposal is set against a backdrop of stress and financial pain in California's 10,000 schools. Reformers, teachers unions and parent groups are all vying to make changes. In recent weeks, numerous education bills have been put into play and suspended again, including two that would tie teacher evaluations to student performance.
But not all school districts will fare the same under the initiative, and passing his plan will be a test of Brown's considerable political savvy and strong will.
The proposed new system has caught the attention of school reformers across the nation, who say California would be among just a handful of states to target disadvantaged students so emphatically, while also allowing local control of the money.
Supporters and opponents are lining up, not along party lines, but based more on how their home school districts will fare under its formulas.
"I know Democrats and Republicans who really like the idea, and I know Democrats and Republicans who really hate the idea," said Kristin Olsen, a Republican who represents a portion of the state's agricultural San Joaquin Valley.
Some version of the plan is expected by many to pass, but it could be significantly watered down or delayed.
Brown's plan is based on the idea that it costs more to educate children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Of particular concern is the so-called "achievement gap" between affluent and disadvantaged students.
In 2006 in California, half as many African-American students were proficient in language arts as white students in the 11th grade, a state report showed. Similar disparities existed in math.
Brown's solution is to redistribute the money that the state has to spend on education, while not significantly increasing the percentage of the budget that goes to fund schools - currently about $50 billion.
Under his plan, school districts would start off with grants of $6,400 to $7,000 per child. Then, districts would receive up to $2,700 more for each student who is impoverished or does not speak fluent English. School districts with a high concentration of those students would get additional funds.
By comparison, the average U.S. state spent $10,600 per pupil in 2010, according to federal data.
It's a formula that could provide a windfall to some large urban districts, while leaving others with little more than the base grant.
The largely blue-collar suburb of Santa Ana, for example, would receive $1400 more per pupil per year than it would under the state's current system, while schools in nearby Anaheim would get $41 less, said Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan. A Democrat, she has strong reservations about Brown's formula.
The governor's proposal would dramatically streamline the state's method for allocating funds, which is currently based on myriad laws and is very rigid about how the money can be spent.
Skeptics among both Democrats and Republicans say they want to modify Brown's plan so that the base grant is large enough to provide adequate funding for all schools - not just those in poor areas.
"Don't leave suburban growing school districts behind," Stephen Hanke, school superintendent in the San Francisco area suburb of Dublin, exhorted at a legislative hearing this week.
Critics - along with some supporters - also say that the approximately $50 billion plan should include safeguards to make sure that local districts are spending the money properly.
"We are absolutely ecstatic that Governor Brown has put forward the proposal," said Rebecca Sibilia, manager for fiscal strategy at Students First, the education reform group founded by former Washington, D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee.
"But we need to make sure that the legislature puts in place systems that make spending more transparent."
School reform proponents as well as state governments throughout the nation are watching the progress of Brown's plan with interest, she said.
Democrats in both houses of the legislature moved this week to wrest some power over the issue from the governor, taking his proposal out of the state's massive budget and placing it into policy bills whose passage and movement through the legislative process they can control.
"It protects poor districts, but not poor schools," the senate's top Democrat, Darrell Steinberg, said of the plan.
Brown has vowed to fight any effort to change his formula, saying that increasing the based grant would leave less money for the poorest districts.
(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Gunna Dickson)