In Calif., Budget Passes, Testing Accord Nears

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As they neared an agreement on a controversial testing plan backed by Gov. Pete Wilson, California legislative leaders last week were about to close the book on one of the state's longest-ever budget battles.

Gov. Wilson signed a $67 billion budget on Aug. 18, 49 days into the state's fiscal year, raising K-12 spending 13 percent over last year's to nearly $22 billion for fiscal 1998.

But even then, the budget wrangling wasn't over. The governor, a Republican, angered Democrats by using a line-item veto to strike out $203 million in school aid pending approval of a plan to replace the current voluntary test system with a mandatory statewide assessment.

Under the tentative compromise, California schools would give standardized tests next spring to students in grades 2-11. The tests, however, would not be only in English as the governor had wished. Details of the test plan were being ironed out last week, Democratic officials said. But with that issue all but resolved, school leaders were left to celebrate new funding for smaller classes, technology, and literacy programs.

"The budget itself is the best one we've had in many years," said Jan Anderson, a spokesman for the California Teachers Association. "It's pulling us out of that terrible recession we had earlier in the decade."

California's constitution guarantees that schools will receive about 40 percent of all state revenue. And in this year's budget, local schools will reap the benefits of a booming state economy.

More for Less

The spending plan adds nearly $700 million to the state's effort to lower K-3 class sizes to 20 students. Schools in the program will see per-pupil funding for operational costs rise from $650 to $800. ("Class-Size Cuts in Calif. Bring Growing Pains," April 30, 1997.)

"Class-size reduction is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we should hold on to for dear life, because we're forever changing the lives of millions of boys and girls," Mr. Wilson said during an Aug. 22 speech at Vista Verde Elementary School in Irvine.

And in a new twist, schools that cannot fully implement the program in all four grades may use the leftover operational funds to pay for new facilities. Space shortages have been an obstacle to expanding the program.

State at a Glance: California

Out of 895 eligible school districts last year, 839 received state aid to reduce class sizes. The $1 billion program reached 955,000 students.

With its $56 million appropriation, the budget provides a second year of funding to train elementary school teachers in reading skills. There is also $50 million for one day of staff development for all teachers in exchange for an additional day of class for students.

It also offers $100 million for a technology initiative that Gov. Wilson had pushed in his January budget proposal. High schools will compete for grants to buy computers and wire schools for new technology.

"We are pleased that there's money for technology," said Doug Stone, the spokesman for Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin. "But we believe that the state needs a long-term policy. None is in place."

Testing Compromises

California lawmakers rarely meet their June 30 deadline for a budget agreement. But this year's negotiations were punctuated by highly contentious skirmishes, the most volatile of which was over the testing plan.

Gov. Wilson even threatened to veto the entire budget if he did not get an agreement for the test. Ms. Eastin, a Democrat, wanted to wait for a test that would be aligned with state standards now under development. ("Wilson Proposal for Basic-Skills Test in Calif. Draws Fire," June 25, 1997.)

And while it looks as if the two-term governor will get his tests and a $35 million budget to implement them, he has had to compromise on some of his original demands.

Under an agreement reached with Senate leaders, all students in grades 2-11 would take the basic skills test in English. Limited English-speakers, however, could then take the test in their primary languages. Mr. Wilson wanted an English-only exam.

In addition, scores will be grouped by districts, schools, grade levels, and students.

They will not be reported by classroom, a measure the governor had sought as a gauge of individual teachers' performance.

"What we're trying to do is assess what kids are doing, and we feel that we'll get that from this test," said Lisa Kalustian, a spokeswoman for the governor. "We're not disappointed."

Stephanie Halnan, a spokeswoman for Cruz M. Bustamante, the Democratic speaker of the legislature's lower chamber, said last week that the speaker was holding out for some changes.

Mr. Bustamante wants districts to be allowed to exempt students who have little or no English skills. He also wants an English-proficiency test for limited English-speakers. The results would help districts develop instructional programs, Ms. Kalustian added.

At least one local education official is wary of the exam, which still would have to be approved by the state school board in time to be administered in May.

"I'm skeptical about this because of political issues," said Randall Olson, the superintendent of the 4,600-student Placer Union High School District, 50 miles north of Sacramento. "There could be a political drumbeat for vouchers and other programs based on low test scores."

Mr. Wilson, on the other hand, clearly lost in his effort to use more than $1 billion in state revenue surpluses to lower the state income tax.

The plan became a public relations nightmare when it was revealed that schools would lose an estimated $2.5 billion under the lower tax.

Ultimately, Mr. Wilson chose to use the surplus to make a lump-sum payment to the Public Employees Retirement System to repay money that the state had borrowed from the system.

While the repayment of the debt was court-ordered, it could have been made over several years.

"It's a pretty good budget for education, but there was a venting of the spleen by the governor over that," state Sen. Leroy F. Greene, the chairman of the education committee, said. "It meant no new money for new programs."

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  • The California Department of Education has posted on its Web site a page concerning class-size reduction, with up-to-date information for administrators and where to turn for assistance.
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