Thursday, January 10, 2008

Governor proposes cutting school funds

Governor: Slash school aid
He'll reportedly propose suspension of Prop. 98
By Judy Lin -
Published 12:16 am PST Thursday, January 10, 2008
In a politically charged move to help whittle down the state's $14 billion deficit, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger today will propose billions in cuts to public education and a suspension of schools' constitutional funding guarantee under Proposition 98.
Schwarzenegger will ask the Democratic-led Legislature to waive Proposition 98's minimum funding requirement for K-14 education programs when he releases his state spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1 and declares a fiscal emergency, according to three sources who have seen the proposal. The sources demanded anonymity because they were not authorized to speak.
The suspension, which requires a two-thirds vote of lawmakers, has been done only once before – during the fiscal crisis of 2004 – and ultimately left Schwarzenegger reeling from accusations that he broke a promise to restore education funding in subsequent years.
The Governor's Office declined to comment on a proposal certain to draw fierce opposition from teachers unions and other education advocacy groups.
"We would enlist all of labor to resist the cuts and to resist the suspension of Prop. 98," said Marty Hittelman, president of the California Federation of Teachers, which represents over 120,000 education employees. "We would consider it an assault on working families."
Hittelman said 90 percent of education funding is dedicated to salaries, much of which is protected by contracts. A 10 percent cut would leave no money for basic school operational needs such as water and electricity, he said.
"He's going to have a fight on his hands," said Kevin Gordon, a school funding expert and consultant. "Proposition 98 isn't some mechanism to try to get decent funding for public schools; it is a minimum level."
Proposition 98, passed in 1988, provides a minimum guarantee for K-12 school districts, community colleges and instructional activities at state agencies. Under a complex calculation established by the initiative, the state dedicates the lion's share of its general fund spending plan to supplement property taxes for education programs. This year, $41 billion of the state's $100 billion general fund budget goes to schools.
Schools also get smaller amounts of money from the federal budget and state lottery proceeds, neither of which is counted in the Proposition 98 calculation.
It's unclear how much the governor will seek in savings from education, although Schwarzenegger has indicated that he will seek an average of 10 percent cuts from all agencies.
For education, that could range from $4 billion to $6 billion, depending on the source of funding, Gordon said.
While labor leaders vowed to call on Democrats to oppose education reductions, many Republicans in the Legislature would responded favorably to the governor's proposal.
In recent weeks, the governor has met privately with school unions, and associations of administrators and school boards – known around the Capitol as the Education Coalition. Participants said Schwarzenegger has told them education cuts will have to be a part of closing the deficit.
The coalition and Schwarzenegger have a politically turbulent history:
When he first arrived in office, Schwarzenegger struck a deal with education leaders for a $2 billion reduction in school financing to deal with a fiscal crisis in the 2004-05 budget.
Coalition leaders said the governor made a verbal pledge to repay the money as state revenues improved, and ultimately they accused him of reneging on the deal.
The California Teachers Association and other groups spent more than $100 million to defeat Schwarzenegger's 2005 ballot measures, including one to change Proposition 98's minimum funding requirements.
CTA President David Sanchez said it was too early to speculate how teachers would respond to a suspension of Proposition 98.
"Our students are not the ones that created this budget crisis," Sanchez said. "Their education shouldn't be ransomed to solve it. If there has to be any kind of budget cut, it should be kept as far away from the classroom as possible."
Education advocates said the proposal, if passed, would create a bad precedent for school funding in the future. The last thing education advocates want is for the Legislature and governor to develop a habit of suspending Proposition 98, Gordon said.
Advocates grew more anxious after Schwarzenegger's State of the State address. In his speech, the governor did not say what they wanted to hear.
"No self-respecting politician would miss the opportunity to say I'm not raising taxes and preserving Prop. 98," Gordon said.
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