Monday, November 27, 2006

$6 Billion for what the established powers (not teachers) want

$6 billion windfall a bonus to schools
Groups to pitch uses as state revenues rise, enrollment declines
- Lynda Gledhill, Chronicle Sacramento Bureau
Monday, November 27, 2006

(11-27) 04:00 PST Sacramento -- California schools are in line for a $6 billion windfall over the next five years, and interest groups are already lining up to get their share, promoting ideas like improving high schools, paying teachers more, and helping urban districts with severely declining enrollment.

The money is anticipated because K-12 enrollment is expected to drop while the state's general fund revenues continue to increase. Several factors are contributing to the declining enrollment: Children of Baby Boomers are exiting the 5-to-17 age group, fewer people are moving into the state, and there has been a decline recently in the state's birthrate.

School funding has been a thorny issue in recent years. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger borrowed school funds to help bridge the state's budget gap in 2004 and then was condemned by school groups the next year when he went back on his promise to pay it back.

The strength of the education lobby, coupled with voter rejection last year of a Schwarzenegger plan to tinker with the constitutional education funding formula, leaves little doubt that schools will be able to keep the expected windfall. Schwarzenegger himself told The Chronicle last month that he has no desire to change funding formulas for education.

The state's nonpartisan legislative analyst recommended that lawmakers begin to consider how to use the money strategically to improve the state's schools.

To do that, lawmakers would have to wrestle with school groups, the governor and their own members, who often have their own ideas about what to do with school money.

"The emphasis on reform and change should be significant," said Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland. "We don't want to use all this money to maintain the status quo. But it is hard because everyone has a vested interest."

This year, 44 percent of the general fund, or $41 billion, is being spent to educate the state's nearly 6 million students. The share of general fund money dedicated to schools declines as enrollment drops but cannot go below 40 percent under Proposition 98, the voter-approved school funding scheme.

With enrollment expected to drop by 80,000 students by 2010-11, California schools are positioned to get an extra $6 billion over the next five fiscal years when revenue from local property tax collections is figured in.

Perata and others are eagerly awaiting the results of an independent study on the adequacy of the state's school system that is expected to be released in March. The $2.6 million study by four philanthropic foundations was commissioned by Perata; Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, D-Los Angeles; Schwarzenegger; and Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell.

The idea is to assess -- without regard to how schools are currently funded -- how much it costs to educate a child in California so that he or she can pass achievement tests and be a productive worker.

"The idea of the adequacy study is to try to put science behind the rhetoric about what it really costs to educate a child in California," Perata said. "Now, these are not tablets coming off the mountain but an independent source to measure decisions by."

Barbara Kerr, president of the California Teachers Association, said she hopes the study will provide a common thread that everyone can agree on.

"This is an opportunity to talk about what we need to do and answer the question of what does it really cost to educate a child in California," she said. "From there, we can look at equitable funding."

Kerr said she believes more money needs to be spent on education to properly teach every child, and she noted that teachers are the biggest part of the classroom experience. Teacher pay and professional development are issues the union frequently pushes.

Alan Bersin, who is leaving his post as Schwarzenegger's education secretary in a few weeks, said the state needs to continue its emphasis on school reform tied to achievement tests. He said elementary education has been improved through spending on better instructional materials, teacher training and the professional development of principals.

"The big challenge in California public education is that we have to focus in on secondary school reform now," he said. "We need to stay the course, invest in standards, and in the next five- to seven-year period have an increased emphasis on improving high schools in both urban and rural areas."

Bersin said the adequacy study could be a guide but stressed that policymakers should "get a better handle on using money effectively before we get into this notion that we have to spend more."

O'Connell also favors concentrating on secondary education, said spokeswoman Hilary McLean.

"He wants to focus on rigor, relevance and relationships in middle and high schools," she said. "That means holding students to a higher bar and also making the classroom more relevant, expanding career technical education availability, and having more adults on campuses that are able to give kids attention."

The California School Boards Association wants to see some of the money go toward helping districts that have seen a sharp decline in students. Urban school systems such as the San Francisco Unified School District are experiencing steady enrollment drops. Rick Pratt, assistant executive director of the organization, said school districts get less money as their student population decreases but that costs do not go down as quickly.

For example, he said, a school could lose five students but still need to have the classroom, pay the teacher, and pay for the utilities.

"They lose funding at a faster rate than the costs go down," Pratt said. "Expenses don't really go down with declining enrollment."

Pratt said his organization would like to see a formula so that school districts lose money over several years. Currently, schools have a one-year grace period before their funding goes down.

E-mail Lynda Gledhill at lgledhill@sfchronicle.com.

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