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Schools Must Remain a Top Priority, Governor Tells California Lawmakers

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Gov. Pete Wilson told California lawmakers last week that despite continuing budget difficulties, education spending must remain a top priority and new programs should be enacted to continue reform efforts.

Governor Wilson began his State of the State Address by acknowledging the recession and budget crunch that have hit California especially hard. Lawmakers worked last year to close a $14-billion budget gap through spending cuts and new taxes, and officials expect a similar problem on a smaller scale again in 1992.

"Times are tough all over--truly tough," Mr. Wilson began. But his address quickly turned toward education and health- care initiatives that he said should top the state's legislative agenda.

"Nothing we do can have a more profound and lasting impact on California's competitiveness than the quality of our schools," the second year Republican Governor said. "We must assure our kids the best break possible in an ever-shrinking and increasingly competitive global marketplace. We must invest heavily in education."

Governor Wilson said he would present a budget that will fully fund Proposition 98, the state's constitutional guarantee that 40 percent of general-fund revenues be devoted to elementary and secondary education and community colleges. He also promised to fully fund enrollment growth and provide for inflation increases.

Education spending would rise by $1.8 billion over this year's appropriation, he said.

The new funding would provide programs ranging from expanded summer school to new textbook purchases. The Governor also called for the establishment of a Child Development and Education Agency at the state level and laws requiring fewer education regulations, encouraging more volunteer classroom aides and mentors, and a merit-pay plan for teachers.

Mr. Wilson also strongly urged lawmakers to act on a pending school-choice plan.

Construction Funding Sought

In addition to focusing on instructional and classroom-support programs, Mr. Wilson asked lawmakers to approve a ballot measure for the June and November elections providing for $6 billion in new bonding authority, including $1.6 billion for school construction.

"We are right to invest heavily in education--to give our schools both the money and the attention they deserve," said the Governor, who wove the education theme into other areas of his speech dealing with the state's business climate and more general welfare and budget proposals that he had announced earlier. (See Education Week, Jan. 8, 1992.)

Mr. Wilson also continued to press the concept of preventive government funding, following a theme set in last year's State of the State Address. The Governor last week said he would push for a health-insurance program for preschool children from low-income families.

Through public and private support, the proposed "Check Up" program would offer all uninsured children through age 5 access to doctor and clinic visits, medicine, and dental and vision care, the Governor said.

"A healthy child can learn," Mr. Wilson told lawmakers. "An unhealthy child cannot."

While his remarks dealt largely with a host of new programs and efforts, the speech also referred to the fiscal bind in which California leaders once again find themselves. "We dare not tax jobs out of California and cannot spend without limit," the Governor said, noting that his re-marks were as much a call for priority-setting as new programs and spending. "We must transform this season of crisis into the greatest season of reform in California history."

VIRGINIA

Wilder Unveils Plan For School-Finance Equity

In his State of the Commonwealth Address last week, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia unveiled a new plan to equalize funding between the state's rich and poor districts, but offered no money to fund the proposal.

In a report sent to the legislature the day after his speech, the Governor called for changes in the complicated formula the state uses to determine how much aid local districts receive.

The proposal did not detail how the new system would work. But observers suggested that although the well-off suburban school systems in Northern Virginia could see some of their aid go to the poorer counties of the south, the plan would not reduce state aid to the wealthier counties as much as some officials had feared.

While Mr. Wilder left the issue of how to fund the plan up to the legislature, he downplayed the financial aspect, arguing that how the state uses its money is as important as how much money it spends. Some estimates indicate the six-year plan could cost up to an additional $900 million.

If additional funds become avail- able because of an economic recovery, the Governor said in his speech, he would first use that money to in- crease salaries for state employees, including teachers and college faculty. Only after that would he provide more money to address funding and program disparities in public education, he said.

The week before Mr. Wilder's speech, a coalition of mostly poor, rural districts dropped its school- funding lawsuit against the state to help clear the way for lawmakers to resolve the issue. The Coalition for Equity in Educational Funding said it was reserving the right to refile the suit, however, if members are not satisfied with legislative solutions.

Despite the need to reduce a $567-million gap between proposed spending and projected state revenues, Mr. Wilder also announced that his new budget will restore some $181 million in state aid to schools cut last year. Aid will be increased $91 million in each year of the two-year budget.

Mr. Wilder shocked his supporters and opponents alike at the close of his address by announcing his withdrawal from the race for the 1992 Democratic Presidential nomination.

Mr. Wilder had trailed the field of major candidates in the polls for the New Hampshire primary, and his fund-raising efforts had foundered.--D.G.

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