Classroom-Spending Vote Has Educators Split
California school administrators are engaged in a bare-knuckle brawl with Los Angeles teachers over a ballot initiative that would restrict districts' spending on administration.
Proposition 223, crafted by United Teachers Los Angeles, would require districts to cap administrative spending at 5 percent of their budgets, and spend the rest on student services, which include the cost of classrooms teachers.
The measure, which is commonly called "95/5," is pitting odd alliances of top Republicans and Democrats against each other.
And the state's main teachers' unions are staying neutral on the matter, because their members are split.
So far, Proposition 223 has been overshadowed by higher-profile ballot proposals to end most bilingual education and curb payroll deductions for political spending. ("Calif. Schools Caught Up in Ballot Tide," May 6, 1998.)
But that lack of attention is changing as a coalition of school groups has begun spending $2.5 million in the campaign homestretch on television ads and a massive network of phone banks to turn public opinion against the plan.
"When people realize that the one-size-fits-all approach will eliminate local control, they turn against it," said Bob Wells, the assistant executive director of government relations for the Association of California School Administrators in Sacramento.
Foes of the measure face an uphill battle. Polls by the nonpartisan Field Institute in San Francisco have given the measure a steady 50 percent approval rating among likely voters, compared with about 31 percent against and 19 percent undecided.
"It has great appeal to California voters, who put a lot of trust in their teachers and have a lot of distrust in bureaucrats," said Steve Blazak, a spokesman for the UTLA.
Proposition 223, which proponents call the California Educational Efficiency Initiative, began as a UTLA-written bill in the 1995 state legislative session.
The measure failed, but not before gaining support from several school districts. The Santa Monica-based advocacy group Children's Rights 2000 subsequently sponsored it as a citizen initiative.
With the help of a professional signature-gathering company, the measure qualified in July 1996 for next month's state ballot.
In addition to limiting district spending for administration, Proposition 223 would penalize noncomplying districts through fines of up to $175 per student a year. Revenue from the fines would be redirected to districts in compliance with the law.
New Jersey had a similar law on its books for two years. Often criticized as an encroachment on local authority, the measure was repealed in 1996.
"Very few, if any, other states have adopted such a policy," said Mary Fulton, a policy analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. "They're more likely to offer incentives and come up with better ways to track administrative spending."
But the California measure would also require districts to link budget items to student-performance objectives beginning in the 1998-99 school year and to hold fiscal audits starting with the 2004-05 school year.
According to the state Legislative Analyst's Office, which reviews ballot measures, 95 percent of California districts spend above 5 percent of their budgets on administration. The average is around 7.3 percent, or a statewide total of about $700 million more than permitted under the proposition.
A study of 1992-93 school spending patterns by the RAND Corp., a nonprofit think tank in Santa Monica, found that 60 percent of district general fund spending goes to salaries and benefits of teachers and teacher aides.
Proponents of the ballot measure say excess administrative spending should be spent in classrooms.
"In Los Angeles, they keep adding central-office administrators when there aren't enough textbooks to go around," said Mr. Blazak of the 37,000-member UTLA, whose members can be affiliated with either the National Education Association or the American Federation of Teachers.
The measure is endorsed by Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican, and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
But a large, equally diverse group of opponents is charging that the measure would spawn a host of problems for districts while failing to deliver on the vaunted promise of more money for classrooms.
"It will simply penalize small districts that, like any organization, must expend a larger percentage of their overall budget on administration," said state schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin. "It would financially cripple small districts."
John Perez, a UTLA vice president, responded, "I have three words for that: balderdash, poppycock, and baloney."
Plenty of small districts, he said, operate under the 5 percent cap. Besides, he said, the state board of education would be allowed to give waivers to districts that could not stay within the cap.
Ms. Eastin, a Democrat, is joined in opposing Proposition 223 by the California Taxpayers Association, the California PTA, and the California Business Roundtable.
The state's NEA and AFT affiliates are neutral on the "95/5" plan because of a split between teachers in urban centers who favor the measure and teachers in other, smaller districts who oppose it.
Mr. Wells of the administrators' group argued that the proposal is so vague about what would fall under the 5 percent cap that the plan would end up requiring new bureaucracies to track spending.
Moreover, he predicted, districts would reduce their administrative-spending ratios by making sure that school-based costs frequently paid by districts, such as utility bills, were moved off their ledgers.
"A way to reach the 5 percent cap is by rearranging accounting," said Jannelle Lee, a fiscal analyst for the Legislative Analyst's Office. "It's nothing illegal, but it culls out costs by school site."
In the meantime, districts are drafting contingency plans as they write next year's budgets in case the measure passes.
Ron Hockwalt, the superintendent of the 15,000-student Walnut Valley Unified School District 35 miles east of Los Angeles, is not filling a vacancy for a technology director until he knows the outcome of the proposal.
"Yes, it's in the back of our minds," Mr. Hockwalt said of the measure. "I'd hate to bring someone in and then have to release them."
Vol. 17, Issue 36, Pages 19,23