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Published in Print: August 8, 2001, as California Budget Pinch Leaves Schools Largely Unscathed

California Budget Pinch Leaves Schools Largely Unscathed

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When the dust finally settled from the California legislature's weeks-long battle over a slimmed-down state budget, the schools proved to be the biggest victors.

At a July 26 budget-signing ceremony at a Sacramento elementary school, Gov. Gray Davis emphasized lawmakers' efforts to make education a priority despite a less prosperous economy. While the fiscal 2001-02 budget included a reduction in general-fund spending of about 2 percent, the budget for K-12 schools grew to $45.4 billion, almost 6 percent more than the previous year.

The spending hike includes a $200 million grant program to help low-performing schools and $250 million to help districts offset rising energy costs and conserve energy.

"I wanted to make sure that for three years in a row, we kept education first," the Democratic governor said at the ceremony. "Even in a softening economy, I wanted to maintain a strong commitment to education."

The state constitution requires that the budget be completed by July 1, but this year legislators missed the deadline by more than three weeks as they locked horns over a quarter-cent increase in the sales tax that was opposed by Republicans.

The tax increase, originally implemented in 1991, was designed to disappear when the state's budget reserve topped 4 percent of the general fund for two consecutive years. The tax was eliminated automatically at the start of this year, bringing the rate down to 4.75 percent, in the wake of a wave of prosperity supported by the then-booming technology industry. But with declining state revenues eating into budget reserves, the sales tax is expected to climb back to 5 percent this coming January.

Republican members of both the Assembly and the Senate held out against a budget compromise for weeks, as they called for the elimination of the tax. In the end, two Senate Republicans and 26 Democrats voted July 22 to pass the budget without repealing the quarter-cent tax, clearing the way for the governor's signature. The Assembly, the legislature's lower house, had passed the measure July 16.

Deeper Cuts Predicted

Assemblyman Dave Cox, a Republican, said that by not making hard decisions about spending cuts this year, lawmakers were setting themselves up for problems next year.

"Only politicians would think that raising taxes and having a deficit budget would stimulate the economy," Mr. Cox said. "Clearly, if the economy continues to move in the direction it's moving, there will have to be a slash-and-burn approach next year in order to balance the budget."

In the course of budget negotiations, Gov. Davis dropped his $65 million proposal to extend the school year by 30 days for middle school students statewide, and scaled back several other education initiatives. The plan for an extended year for middle school students had been greeted with skepticism in the legislature and had failed to garner enough support from education groups.

"Where he came up with that, we have no idea," said Wayne Johnson, the president of the California Teachers Association. "It wasn't a well-thought-out idea. If you're really looking to help low-performing schools, how does extending middle school in Beverly Hills help kids in Compton?"

Despite the targeted cuts, the budget for schools largely "held its own" since first proposed by the governor in January, said Rick Pratt, the assistant executive director for governmental relations for the California School Boards Association.

In addition to the programs for low-performing schools and energy costs, the budget includes $80 million for the first year of a four-year program that aims to train more than 260,000 educators in mathematics and reading instruction. Another $15 million is earmarked for the first year of a three-year principal-training initiative.

Still, Mr. Pratt noted that education lobbyists had originally hoped that a $200 million program designed to raise achievement in schools scoring near the bottom on state tests would receive more money.

"There are a number of areas where we're looking to try to help the low-performing schools," Mr. Pratt said. "But while we could use more money, we really can't be disappointed because we did pretty well."

An Eye Toward Exams

The legislature is sending more help to low-performing schools as the state moves closer to implementing its high school exit exam. Under current law, this fall's incoming 10th graders will be the first class required to pass the test to graduate. The students took the test for the first time on a voluntary basis as 9th graders last spring—with 65 percent passing the English portion of the test, and 45 percent passing the math section.

Gov. Davis is supporting a measure—now pending in the legislature—that would authorize an independent study to gauge how prepared the class of 2004 is to pass the test. Depending on the study's findings, the state board of education could vote to delay the graduation requirement.

In a state- commissioned evaluation of the exit exam released last month, the Human Resources Research Organization, a nonprofit research group based in Alexandria, Va., recommended that the state maintain the testing requirement for the class of 2004.

Vol. 20, Issue 43, Page 29

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