Californians to watch in 2014: Board of Education President Michael Kirst tries to shepherd complex school-funding overhaul to reality

December 28, 2013

Michael Kirst will mark a half-century in the education policy trenches next year, an anniversary that coincides with major decisions on a landmark school-finance plan he crafted, sold to Gov. Jerry Brown, and now is trying to bring to fruition as president of the California State Board of Education.
Kirst has overseen the process of trying to carry out the Local Control Funding Formula, which revamps the state’s convoluted system of distributing money across its 6.2 million-student school system. But a first draft of regulations was panned by critics and exposed a deep rift about how the formula’s extra money for the neediest students should be allocated.

The formula is the culmination of a career in education that began in 1964 when Kirst, fresh out of Harvard University with a doctorate in political economy and government, joined the then-U.S. Bureau of the Budget (now known as the Office of Management and Budget). He administered federal categorical programs, part of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society agenda.

Kirst decamped for Stanford in 1969, shifting his focus from federal finance to state finance. In the mid-1970s, a mutual acquaintance introduced Kirst to Brown when Brown, making his first run for governor, needed to get up to speed about school finances after the California Supreme Court rejected the state’s school-funding system in its Serrano v. Priest decision.

“People ask me, what’s the difference now? Well, at 35 years old, we thought we had more answers than we do at 75. You realize how complex this is,” Kirst said.

In recent weeks, Kirst, a professor emeritus at Stanford University, has spent hours on the phone and in meetings with representatives of the various interests in the funding formula dispute. They fall broadly into two camps: district officials and teacher unions seeking maximum local flexibility in how the extra money is spent, and civil rights organizations and business-backed groups that say the state needs to have a central role in the money’s use.