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Published in Print: September 5, 2007, as California Budget Battle Presages Education Debate

California Budget Battle Presages Education Debate

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With a seven-week stalemate over the current California budget barely behind them, members of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s staff—as well as those in the state’s education community—already are turning their attention to the fiscal 2009 budget the governor will present next year.

Secretary of Education David Long, the governor’s chief education adviser, soon will begin a series of eight hearings throughout the state to gather input for what the Republican governor has said will be “the year of education reform.”

How to narrow the achievement gaps between students of different backgrounds—and to address issues raised earlier this year in a massive research report on school finance and governance—will be among the topics discussed. ("California’s Schooling Is ‘Broken’," March 21, 2007.)

“We will be going forward with some proposed policies and legislation in the very near future,” Mr. Long said during an Aug. 24 telephone briefing.

But at a time of partisan battles in the Democratic-controlled legislature, the governor’s slashing of $700 million out of the final budget, and a financial picture not expected to be much better next year, some observers wonder how much reform will actually take place in 2008.

“Hope on that issue waxes and wanes,” said Mary Perry, the deputy director of EdSource, a Mountain View, Calif.-based think tank and research organization.

Focus on Career Education

The $57.1 billion K-12 budget for fiscal 2008 was spared most of the governor’s cuts. It includes a 4.53 percent cost-of-living increase for school personnel and $2.1 million to continue implementing standardized testing in 2nd grade—a key, the Schwarzenegger administration says, to determining “whether or not a student has mastered basic reading skills,” and for identifying children who might need extra support.

The budget also includes $52 million to continue the governor’s efforts to strengthen career and technical education. A portion of that is paid for with $20 million in general funds, while the rest is covered by part of a $3.1 billion settlement reached between Mr. Schwarzenegger and the California Teachers Association last year. The settlement ended a lawsuit that the union filed against the governor after the state used education funds to help balance the budget in 2004. ("Calif. Bill Proposes $2.9 Billion in Aid for 600 Schools," Sept. 6, 2006.)

In cooperation with the state’s community college system, the initiative includes tech-prep programs, career courses linked with businesses, and financial incentives for high schools to enroll students in such programs.

Some educators, though, have expressed concern over a shortage of instructors for career and technical education. Estimates show that more than 4,000 are needed in the state.

Mr. Long said that the administration is working to remedy the situation, including streamlining the credentialing process for such teachers. But he said it could take a few years to eliminate the shortage.

California’s Budget

“We will ramp up over a few years,” he said. “But we can’t take that big of a bite to begin with.”

Spending per student has increased to $11,541 on average statewide for fiscal 2008, from $11,163 in fiscal 2007. Ms. Perry said that some of the increase is because Proposition 98—the school funding guarantee in the state constitution—raises total education spending annually, even though student population in California is declining.

Enrollment in the state is projected to fall to below 6 million for the 2007-08 school year, from 6.3 million last school year and is expected to continue declining. While some counties, such as Los Angeles, continue to grow, school districts in the San Francisco Bay Area and other coastal regions of the state are losing students.

Although some districts lose aid, Ms. Perry said the trend overall “creates some opportunity” to address issues raised in "Getting Down to Facts," the research project released in March that was meant to give the state direction for making policy recommendations.

Scanty Data

One of the critical issues raised in those reports was a lack of data needed to make informed decisions about student achievement. While the state has a student-data tracking system as required by the federal government, money to help local school districts collect and maintain accurate data was deleted from the fiscal 2008 budget.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell said in a statement that he was “very disappointed” that the final budget did not include that item.

The budget delay—which took place because Republicans wanted Democrats to make more cuts—also postponed payments to schools, child-care centers, and health-care providers. But while most districts and schools can now press ahead with providing services and paying their employees, charter school providers are growing anxious over a separate “trailer bill” in the legislature that could affect funding for school facilities.

The bill appropriates $18 million to help charter schools serving children from low-income families pay rent and lease payments on their facilities. Because of that Charter School Facility Grant Program, “the number of inner-city charter schools targeting high-poverty students has tripled,” according to a press release from the California Charter Schools Association.

But state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez, a Democrat, has inserted language in the bill that would eliminate the state school board’s authority to renew charters. More than 500 charter school parents and teachers demonstrated outside the speaker’s Los Angeles office Aug. 23, hoping to persuade him to go ahead and allow the money to be allocated. Gary Larson, a spokesman for the charter schools’ group, said he expects the governor to veto the bill because of his support for such schools, even though he originally proposed over $40 million for the program.

“It’s such a ‘Sophie’s Choice’ legislation,” Mr. Larson said.

Vol. 27, Issue 2, Pages 17-18

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