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Wilson Proposes Using Surplus To Cut Class Sizes

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With California's economy spinning gold for the state's coffers, Gov. Pete Wilson last week proposed a cash infusion for schools.

In a revised budget plan, the governor proposed putting nearly $500 million toward reducing 1st- and 2nd-grade class sizes to 20 students. California's K-12 classes are the largest in the country, averaging about 30 students per teacher.

The governor also will ask lawmakers to send $50,000 to each of the state's more than 7,700 schools. These one-time grants would total $387 million that school officials could spend on whatever is needed.

"They can use the money to buy a new roof, install computers on kids' desks, or slap a coat of new paint on the walls," Gov. Wilson said in releasing his new budget.

To pay for such proposals, the governor would dip into an unexpected bounty of funds. Red-hot economic growth has state revenues running $2.4 billion above projections.

"With a growing economy," Gov. Wilson said, "we now have the revenue we need to make investments to ensure California students get the kind of education that will prepare them for the 21st century."

In all, the second-term Republican pumped up the $17.9 billion state-aid package for schools that he announced in January with $1.7 billion in new initiatives.

Scrooge No More?

Showering schools with cash may help Gov. Wilson shake his Scrooge reputation among educators, but some longtime Statehouse veterans pointed out that many of the governor's initiatives carry only one-time spending. The governor also is required by the state constitution to turn over to schools a big chunk of the surplus funds generated in robust economic times.

Mr. Wilson's new budget also includes the tax-cut proposal he made in January. Legislative analysts have said it would drain more than $5 billion from available revenues for schools over the next four years.

"If you really want to think of this as Christmas for schools, he would back off the tax cut as well," said Lawrence O. Picus, a school-finance researcher at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Still, educators who have seen only one increase in state aid during the 1990s welcomed the proposed new funding. The governor's commitment to reducing class size also puts him philosophically on the same page as many other state education leaders who believe that students' reading performance will improve if K-3 classes are made smaller.

California 4th-grade students scored last--in a tie with Louisiana--on the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress reading test. (See Education Week, May 3, 1995.)

Leroy F. Greene, the chairman of the Senate education committee, has campaigned this year to beef up the $30 million line item devoted to reducing class size. That money is targeted for grades 9 through 12, but the dollars are so scarce that most districts use it only to trim a few 9th-grade English classes.

The governor's proposal "is not just similar to my plan, it's almost exactly the same," said Sen. Greene, a Democrat. "What he's doing is funding my proposal."

In the Republican-controlled Assembly, meanwhile, leaders said they were fashioning a plan that would put even more money toward class-size reduction. The GOP plan would let districts use the money to ease the pressure of crowded classrooms at any level they wanted--not just for 1st and 2nd grades.

"We're willing to put issues and ideas on the table that go much farther than what is being contemplated by the other side of the aisle," said Bill Lucia, the chief education consultant to the Assembly education committee.

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