By Kofi Sefa-Boakye
Gov. Jerry Brown recently crafted a radical agenda to overhaul California’s public schools. Brown’s proposal, dubbed the Local Control Funding Formula, would scuttle the one-size-fits-all method of financing public schools in favor of a disproportionate allocation to low-income school districts. Citing Aristotelian doctrine, Brown argues, among other things, that “Equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice,” according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. “Growing up in Compton or Richmond is not like it is to grow up in Los Gatos or Beverly Hills or Piedmont.”
Congrats, Gov. Brown, for exposing a fundamental malady that has plagued California public schools for decades. Granted, the current method of funding school districts regardless of socioeconomic background is anachronistic and inequitable, but the question can also be asked: Was Brown’s “across-the-board” elimination of community redevelopment agencies in the less affluent communities of California equitable? Can school funding alone bridge the achievement gap in those communities? The answer is a resounding no!
Bridging the school funding gap between rich and poor districts is meaningless if such a policy is not linked to an overall economic intervention strategy that addresses the multifaceted needs of underserved municipalities harboring a disproportionate share of underserved school districts vis-a-vis wealthy municipalities. On the political map, municipal sovereignty remains constitutionally guaranteed under the Home Rule charter. Yet on the economic map, this so-called equality is a mere cartographic illusion.
Emerging from a legacy of urban decay in the wake of postindustrialization and business exodus over the past several decades, depressed urban communities are constantly competing with their more wealthy communities for private investment to revive their depressed economies. Under such economic inequality, the community redevelopment process became one of the potent policy intervention tools for poor inner-city communities to equalize the unleveled playing field and compete with wealthy communities in Beverly Hills and Newport Beach for commercial, retail and residential developments for their jurisdictions.
However, confronted with a devastating fiscal crisis in California’s history, Brown in January 2011 dissolved California’s 400 redevelopment agencies statewide and shifted their property tax revenues to the state to balance the state budget. Without doubt, his dissolution measure has to some extent bridged the gaping deficit that has crippled California’s economy for decades.
Unfortunately, Brown’s across-the-board elimination of redevelopment authorities is impeding the ability of poor inner-city communities to utilize the redevelopment process to attract investors to revive their economies. Ironically, these very handicapped communities are also homes to school districts serving high concentrations of underserved students. Such districts include the Compton Unified School District, which encompasses the city of Compton, where I work, and portions of Carson and Los Angeles. The enrolled K-12 students number almost 25,800, of which 77 percent are Latino and 22 percent African-Americans.
On the eve of the dissolution of the redevelopment agencies in June 2010, the city of Compton issued $100 million tax allocation bonds to finance acquisition of several blighted properties in the redevelopment project area purposely to cause commercial, retail and residential developments and infrastructure improvements. Yet the dissolution of redevelopment stands to tragically reverse the tremendous strides the city has undertaken to prevent and eliminate urban decay.
If the future of California cannot survive under the current anachronistic, one-size-fits-all funding method for public schools, the economic future of California cannot survive under across-the-board dissolution of redevelopment agencies because strong cities make strong school districts. Otherwise they become vassals of the state. An intervention strategy such as redevelopment bolsters economic recovery of the state and city through retail sales, property tax revenues and job creation.
Kofi Sefa-Boakye is director of the successor agency of the redevelopment agency in Compton. Originally published in the Los Angeles Business Journal