Over the past several weeks, a shadowy
state agency has convened under court order to fix a school
construction-funding scheme flagrantly biased against California's
most overcrowded, poor urban districts. That it took a civil
rights lawsuit to force the State Allocation Board to reform
is appalling enough. Even more disturbing, the growing conflict
between wealthy and inner-city districts may preclude a just
At the root of the problem is the board's practice of handing
out school-construction money, including the $ 3 billion that
voters authorized in approving Proposition 1A in 1998, on a
first-come, first-served basis. Each of California's 1,000 school
districts must complete a detailed application process, including
architectural and construction planning and extensive environmental
review of proposed sites. Districts that fill out the forms
fastest, not those with the greatest demonstrable need for new
facilities, overwhelmingly get the money.
Accordingly, inner-city districts, where students are crammed
into year-round facilities with broken toilets and playgrounds
buried beneath portable classrooms, receive little support.
Richer districts serving suburban and exurban regions--communities
expanding into largely rural, open spaces--pocket funds for
Olympic-sized pools, band-practice rooms and manicured soccer
The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, contains
12% of the state's K-12 student body. One-third of its mostly
inner-city pupils receive substandard, multitrack year-round
instruction. Yet, under the SAB's formula, the district would
be paid just 1% of all Proposition 1A funds. Facing certain
depletion of this money, a coalition of LAUSD students challenged
the constitutionality of the board's approach. Last August,
a court ruled that, before trial in early 2001, the board had
to follow its own priority-points system and address need, not
just speed, in its funding decisions. Despite the students'
legal victory, behind-the-scenes politics threatens real progress.
California's inequitable school-funding process is another
example of what happens when crucial social decisions are made
by little-known agencies subject to virtually no scrutiny. The
rules and regulations of these insider-dominated bureaucracies
can be strikingly inequitable yet almost impossible to change.
The very heart of the SAB's approach reflects this problem.
Even if it employs its priority-points system, its formula is
inherently skewed in favor of richer communities. As evidence
of "need," exurban districts are allowed to inflate their funding-priority
scores by counting the number of future "students," often derived
from nothing more than a developer's tentative tract map on
This is a huge blow to urban districts. Compared with the tangible
facility shortages plaguing inner-city schools, construction
requirements derived from tentative tract maps are highly speculative.
Many proposed projects are never built because of changing funding,
regulatory or market circumstances. Years can pass before ground
is broken, and by the time construction begins, the size and
scope of most developments frequently differs from what was
Incredibly, the SAB's funding formula weighs an exurban district's
"ghost" pupil requirements almost as heavily as an urban district's
actual facility shortfalls. In others words, the 77,000 students
for which the LAUSD now lacks two-semester classroom capacity
compete for construction money with "phantom" children on vacant
Procedural politics explains this result. As a 1998 California
Research Bureau study noted, the SAB, like most bureaucratic
entities, is profoundly influenced by special-interest pressure.
Wealthier school districts have far more resources and direct
political connections to lobby for rules that favor them. SAB
staff, moreover, has considerable discretion to delay or otherwise
compromise any district's funding application. Poorer, disadvantaged
communities can ill afford to openly challenge even its most
SAB rules also make no allowance for the fact that the state's
environmental review process delays even the most diligent urban
district's applications. No district can get in the school-funding
queue until the state Department of Education certifies a potential
school site. A site can't be certified until all environmental
studies are complete. The trouble is, California is among the
small minority of states refusing to establish cleanup criteria
for previously used urban land.
Almost all potential inner-city school sites are affected by
prior industrial, commercial or residential activities. They
require extensive environmental assessment. Most urban landowners,
however, are loath to permit urban districts to test soil, because
they fear the state's unconstrained evaluation procedures. Assuming
soil data is ever obtained, a district's application can be
further stalled while regulators, environmentalists and community
groups haggle over results.
In suburban districts, potential sites are usually located
on still-untouched or more lightly utilized land. Exurban developers
are typically delighted to cooperate with district officials
because new schools add value to their projects. Wealthy districts
can often complete all their environmental reviews in the time
it takes their urban counterparts just to identify a site.
Why do urban districts suffer such disadvantages? One reason
is that some environmental groups oppose clear-cut cleanup standards
because they want the broadest possible opportunity to force
open-ended review of any project that offends them. Ironically
enough, the state's most powerful environmental lobbyists and
lawmakers repeatedly failed to prevent adoption of relatively
relaxed soil standards for high-profile projects in the Bay
Area, where most of them reside. But they have been far more
adept at killing every legislative proposal to establish similar
urban cleanup criteria, including those applicable to potential
school sites, everywhere else.
In the last year, for example, the number of steps required
to complete school-site environmental review has greatly increased.
But lacking clear environmental standards, urban districts must
now pass through an even larger number of ill-defined bureaucratic
checkpoints before they are allowed to apply for, let alone
receive, SAB funding.
That's why, at a time when the rhetoric of educational opportunity
is everywhere, an agency like the SAB can disproportionately
fund politically well-connected, wealthier districts at the
expense of inner-city communities. In procedural politics, the
odds always favor the privileged and powerful.
In response to the court's ruling, for example, the SAB agreed
to take need into account when parceling out funds but largely
rejected calculation proposals put forth by urban districts
in favor of those advanced by exurban and suburban district
lobbyists. Late last month, the board barely overcame a concerted
effort to force a return to the allocation system used before
the court's ruling.
Even if the SAB acts on priority points, exurban districts
will be permitted to count "phantom" students. Nor is any means
of offsetting the environmental-review delay handicapping urban
districts being considered. The board declined to withhold the
final $ 450 million of its Proposition 1A funds any later than
June 2002, even though the LAUSD, by far the biggest loser under
the current regime, pleaded that such funds be reserved for
just four additional months to complete pending applications.
The SAB will have to defend its decisions in court next month,
then in a trial. It's daunting to think that changing years
of unconscionable practice hinges on a few fragile moments in
court. In an era when bureaucracies can unaccountably fashion
crucial public policies, however, such may be the only chance
to insist that principle, not process, reigns supreme.