August 10, 2020 | Posted in:Education Policy

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview one of the stakeholders in the Tinsley Settlement. Dr. Julian Crocker served as Superintendent of Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) from 1985-1989, the time during which the Tinsley Case was settled. The Tinsley case took nine years of negotiations to settle. I was interested to find out what Dr. Crocker thought of that contentious time. He, after all, negotiated for one of the defendants when the case concluded. 

Dr. Crocker answered my questions clearly in writing, and we followed up with a phone call, part of which I have included here. It struck me that the issue he faced at that time is similar to what we are facing now: inequity of resources. Dr. Crocker walked me through some of the major public school funding policy and litigation issues that have affected our schools over the last 34 years, and I include those here for those of you, who, like me, could use a refresher.

Dr. Crocker’s answer to the question: what would equity look like to you? intrigued me. Given that thirty-four years later there still exist major inequities between Ravenswood School District (the plaintiffs) and the other Districts (the named parties) involved in the Tinsley case, Dr. Crocker was one of the first primary sources I asked who granted me an interview and was willing to hazard an answer. 

What would equity look like to you now?

You said, you “understand the realities of local school districts but you now favor an open enrollment policy for all school districts if at all possible.” What do you mean by that? Do you mean each school within its own district? Do you mean between districts? … Or do you mean open enrollment for each little school within that District?

Actually both. If it was a district like San Mateo, for example, that had a number of elementary schools, and again in the context of the majority of families, as you know, have both parents working. Just to go back in history, the reason, not the reason, but one of the advantages of what we call neighborhood schools is because it was kind of built on the assumption that there would be somebody at home all the time. There were neighborhoods that held together. Well, obviously that’s changed. So, my point was that since in many homes both parents are not there, in many ways it makes sense to have an open enrollment policy so that kids can go where it is perhaps more convenient for their parents than just staying in their local neighborhood school since both parents leave anyway. That’s kind of what I’m saying. 

And there are a lot of individual situations where it may be better, again from the family’s standpoint, not necessarily the District, but from a family’s standpoint that the children go to another school instead of their neighborhood school. That’s what I’m saying, ideally from a parent’s perspective if Districts had literally an open enrollment arrangement, in many ways it may be more helpful for families. Particularly now where, as I said, as you know, both parents are working in most places. The whole idea of the neighborhood school part of it was based on the idea that somebody’s home all the time. It’s from the 40s, the 50s, and the 60s. It kind of a neighborhood; there wasn’t the transiency. There wasn’t electronic stuff or any of those things.The whole neighborhood school was geographically focused.That’s just not the case now. We tend to be more electronically focused than geographic.

That’s what I meant by that. It may meet the needs of families better if you had a purely open enrollment system within a District. 

It kind of opened my mind. So I was going with that. Some families commute very far. Some families commute an hour and a half each day or more to work each day. That kind of Open Enrollment would have to be done at a regional or state level almost. Then there are questions that have to be answered. Some schools would be overly impacted. For instance my school operates on a lottery with a waiting list. 

Right. I think a lot of Districts do that. That’s right. 

Of course with all the funding inequities, that brings up a lot. 

Right. The major shift in the funding now is really as you probably know between the majority of Districts who are still on the revenue limit. Using a revenue limit, it’s still kind of state wide. It’s much more equal that way because of the state wide revenue limit except in some districts, San Mateo is probably like that now. Do you know …if I were to say Basic Aid District, do you know what I mean by that? 

Yeah, Palo Alto, Menlo Park…some of the wealthier Districts, to be honest.

Right. They’re back on the regular property tax now. Their property tax is high enough that it exceeds the revenue limit so they’re allowed to continue to go with their property tax. It’s interesting. Those districts that have that kind of high property tax they’re not necessarily interested in more students coming in because it, quote, takes money from the kids who already live there. It doesn’t really, but they see it that way. So that’s another whole factor. That was not the case when the Tinsley situation was there. But it is now.

How were schools funded during the Tinsley Settlement?

We were still on the Revenue limit. We had just started the system basically we have now. That went into effect after the Serrano Priest decision. There were revenue limits. They weren’t all in effect. Do you know what I mean when I say revenue limits?

I should. Maybe you can explain it for me again.

It’s just the amount of money per student that the state allocates to school districts. And it’s, I don’t know, $6,500 a student, and that money comes technically from the state to school districts and it’s called revenue limit. It’s a mixture of local property tax and state tax money that goes to make up that particular amount. If you said $6,500 per student then some of that is made up of local property taxes, some of that is made up of state sources, but it’s controlled by the state. That’s my point. 

The whole point of it, going all the way back to Serrano Priest; it’s a laudable point I agree, is to try to have basically equal funding for all students in the state. The theory – and I agree with it – is number one: if public education in California is a state function – It is. It’s in the State constitution. – Then the state has the responsibility to insure there is a degree of equal funding for all students in the state. That is the outline of it.

That was the Serrano Priest Decision.

Exactly. Here’s a footnote. Serrano was John Serrano. I can’t remember yesterday but I can remember his name.

That’s great.

It was John Serrano. He was in the Los Angeles area. He was outside of Beverly Hills. He used Beverly Hills as an example. He didn’t live there, he lived in Linwood or somewhere, but he said, We don’t live in Beverly Hills, but the kids who live in Beverly Hills have so many more resources because the property tax in Beverly Hills is so much higher than it is in Linwood and so the Beverly Hills Schools have so much more to work with than we do. And his reasoning was that if public education is a state function, and it is, then the second point is the state has an obligation to have equal funding, you can’t have these discrepancies going on. He won. The California Supreme Court ruled in favor of him. That’s when the current funding system went into effect. 

What it basically did was hold down what were called high wealth districts and pushed up low wealth districts through the fact that the state took over the funding. Does that make sense?


There have been a lot of iterations in between but basically that’s where we are now. We have these revenue limits in effect.

So that happened after Tinsley.

The point was that Palo Alto was a high wealth district. So that was one of the things in the mix. That’s why the Tinsley kids, their families, wanted them to come to Palo Alto. 

Because it was better funded?


It was much better funded. Yeah. 

The Serrano Priest decision didn’t really seem to turn that around.

Not quickly. It took time. I think if you looked at it over time you’d see that maybe up until 5 years ago the majority of the Districts in California were relatively equal. Then, as I said, literally recently with this escalation in home prices and land values it’s starting to be more discrepant now. Does that make sense, what I’m saying?

I’ve been looking at the inequities and trying to figure out what is it that is creating these funding inequities? Is it the parent foundations in these Basic Aid Districts? What is it? And, I’m trying to ask as many people as I can, what they think could fix it. I don’t know. That’s why the idea of Open Enrollment is interesting to me. You obviously can’t have too many kids per classroom, I don’t know how you solve the funding. 

The underlying issue, it’s very much of an issue where you are, the Bay Area, I think they still call it Basic Aid District, your funding is still totally all local property tax then it’s just kind of an arithmetic deal then: the more kids you have the the fewer dollars per student there is. Because you have a set amount of money, even though it’s a high amount. So the Basic Aid Districts want to restrict the number of students in their District for financial reasons. They would prefer from a financial stand point not to have inter-district transfers, not to have students from other districts come in because that means there’s technically less money for the students who live there. Do you see what I’m saying?

Now I do. So having a Basic Aid District is really a disincentive to integration.

Absolutely. Its a disincentive for any kind of non-residential student to come there. 

I just understood that. 

Understand, I’ve been retired for 2-3 years so I’m not right up current with the current funding situation. There’ve been some tweaks. 

I think we’re still a Basic Aid District. I’ve heard that term thrown around and it has made me gloss over, frankly, every time I hear it. 

Our last point. It was always a real dilemma. Because on the one hand you’re glad for Basic Aid Districts because they’ve got a lot more money for kids so you don’t want to restrict that. On the other hand it does cause inequities across the board. It’s a real dilemma. It always has been. There’s no easy answer.

It seems to me the problems of inequity can’t be solved at the one District level. 


It needs to be regional. Or statewide.


That was the whole idea, again, I know I’m repeating, of the Serrano Priest decision, of the revenue limit, was to solve this issue on a state-wide basis. To move the funding from locally to the state – which again 80 – 90% of the schools are funded that way – and solve this problem by having the set revenue limits. And, like I  said, that system has worked. There are aberrations, like San Mateo, frankly Santa Clara, the Bay Area, Marin County’s probably the same way. The high expensive areas.

You think maybe just open enrollment in the Bay Area. How would you fix the funding in the Bay Area, then?

That’s the problem, then, I don’t have a solution.

The ideal solution but it’s, you know, if you had enough money at the state level to raise other districts up to where the Bay Area Districts are then it would be a lot better, but that’s a huge amount of money from the state. Nobody’s come up with a good solution. Right now. So it’s tough. It’s hard.

Well, now that you know my childhood history, I would go back to Proposition 13. I would want to find out how much money it would cost to raise the other districts up to the Basic Aid Districts, then see what

That would be interesting.

Then see what we’ve lost in commercial property tax revenue from Prop 13.

That’s a good point. As you research this, you’ll see the example is always given is Beverly Hills is always compared to, I don’t remember the other district that’s always given in the Los Angeles area. Beverly Hills is always given as the example of a high wealth district and how kids there have so many more resources then kids in Compton for example. Actually, I do believe Compton is the one they used in Serrano Priest. 

It would make sense. You could easily do it here with Palo Alto Unified and Ravenswood, I’m afraid.

Yeah. Absolutely. 

Thank you for taking the time to help me figure out school funding in California.

I would say, I know I’ve said it a couple of times, the real hero to me was Judge Lanham. He just wasn’t involved in schools or anything. He was just a regular superior court judge and all the sudden he deals with the issue of school funding. He got so involved. I think he cleared his calendar of everything else. It became a real cause celeb for him to get this issue between Ravenswood East Palo Alto and Palo Alto settled. That’s one of my strong memories was how involved he got in it. And I know it wasn’t on his radar before that. And he really got into this issue. He was the real hero in this issue.

Did you have any other thoughts or questions.

It really dredged up some good memories. There were some difficult times but there were some good memories. I’d say the Palo Alto side from my perspective, the interesting thing, again, this is just me, so don’t, you know, before the Tinsley settlement, Palo Alto is..probably now too, is an elitist district. A lot of connections with the university. They kind of see themselves, I think, they did then, as a high flying district. So the idea of having kids from across the tracks, quote, if you will, go to school there was just not on their radar at all. 

So to go through that whole issue. And yet the interesting thing to me, and again, this is just Julian, here we’re literally across El Camino from Stanford, of course very liberal voices coming from Stanford, about how important it is to have an integrated system. But not with my kids. That’s what was kind of saying because here you would literally have professors or people at Stanford who theoretically were saying we should have an equitable system and  there shouldn’t be these discrepancies but don’t bring those kids from across 101 to my District. So there were some kind of differences that way. It was interesting to me to see that pushed to the limit. Anyway. In retrospect. It’s fine.

I think we’re having those kinds of discussions today still.

I’m sure. 

About many things: Foothillls Park, people are asking that to open up. The school issue hasn’t come up yet, but any time it does there is heated discussion about students from East Palo Alto. 

I’m sure. 

There are comments online.

We didn’t have that.

You were negotiating for the Palo Alto side. Who was negotiating for the Ravenswood side? Who did you meet with? Do you remember?

No I don’t. And they could have had some changes going on. And I’m trying to remember who the county superintendent was, for San Mateo County. I think it was Russell Kent. I believe he was the county superintendent for San Mateo and I believe they were one of the players there.

Yes, I think they were named on the suit and Santa Clara was too. Both counties were and 7 to 9 districts, Portola Valley…

Menlo Park…

Judge Lanham had his hands full.

He sure did. And of course each of those districts have boards and you’ve got trustees. You’ve got a lot of fingers in the pot. That’s why, again, I thought Lanham was the real hero.

I didn’t think about all the different people on the boards. I was thinking about theSuperintendents and the 170 claimants.

The Board members are publicly elected so they had to deal with this issue with their constituents. 

You had to get the settlement approved by the board?

Right. The Palo Alto Board. 

Do you remember how many times you went to the Board?

I think it wasn’t like there were different agreements that were brought. It was more like a continuing discussion and explaining what was happening. Fortunately, one of the Board members, Joe Simitian particularly, and a couple of the others, but anyway then when we brought the final settlement that’s when they agreed. It was more of a narrative. This is what’s happening. And then we brought the settlement. 

So you’d give them updates.


You’d take their temperature and give that feedback to the judge?

We would yes, it was a continual process.

That’s probably how the judge figured out how. There was probably a lot of back and forth.

Yes. Very much and again, it was not only just multiple districts but across counties it couldn’t have been much more complex in terms of jurisdictions. 


I really appreciate the time that Dr. Crocker spent helping me to understand not only how school funding has changed, but how it affected the desegregation landscape of our local schools. In my next blog post, hear former San Mateo County Office of Education Superintendent Anne Campbell’s reflections about What would equity look like to you? How can we get there? I can be reached at kristinakerhowellATgmailDOTcom. 

1 Comment

  1. Alice M.
    August 13, 2020

    Didn’t know former Palo Alto councilman and current Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian was on PAUSB board during the Tinsley case.


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