Monday, March 15, 2010

California education budget is a shell game: Schrag

Yes, it is. He has it right.

Nonetheless, there was a lot of gubernatorial crowing when the governor signed the last of the legislation which, in the words of a Schwarzenegger press handout in January made “California highly competitive for $700 million in federal education funds.”  
But California’s real problem isn’t in charter caps or in barriers to the use of student test scores in evaluating teachers, stupid as those barriers seem. . Even where test scores can legally be used, there’s no certainty that they can be used wisely. Nor are charters any magic bullet: Some are excellent; many are no better than comparable public schools in their student outcomes, and often worse; some are rip-offs.
What’s currently tripping up California in Washington is that the state has been caught in a shell game. While the state acknowledges that the state is spending less per student this year than last (and will probably be spending still less next year), the governor claims that it’s spending an equal portion of its general fund on schools as in the past and thus is not failing in maintenance of effort.
But he can do that only through an accounting gimmick in his proposed budget. In a letter to state officials the federal Department of Education cites letters from California education and civil rights groups pointing out how the proposed budget “seeks to eliminate a State sales tax on gasoline and substitute…an excise tax on gasoline in order to remove revenues from the state’s general fund and effectively render the Proposition 98 [minimum school funding] guarantee inapplicable to those funds.”
In addition, the feds raise a series of other accounting questions about the state’s application for a new round of federal stimulus funds, funds which are conditioned on the state’s fulfilling the maintenance of effort commitment it made when it got the first round of education stimulus money last year. Until it answers the questions, the feds say, no decision will be made on whether California will get another round of federal stimulus money.
And under that problem lies a more fundamental one: the state’s chromic unwillingness to adequately invest in its schools and its ongoing disinvestment in its colleges and universities. Depending on how you count we’re now somewhere in the forties among the fifty states in what we spend per pupil in our K-12 schools – far below the U.S. average, and even further below most of the major states -- and lower than that if you measure education spending as a percentage of income. How short-sighted and stupid.

Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America will be published in 2010.
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