Education Issues Holding Up Agreement on California's Budget

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Education funding and school accountability remain pivotal issues in closed-door talks between elected officials trying to reach agreement over California's state budget, which is already more than a month late.

State lawmakers and Gov. Pete Wilson missed their July 1 budget deadline after Democrats balked at Mr. Wilson's demand for a $1 billion cut in the state's vehicle-license fee, saying it would take money from education.

Last week, however, a leading Democratic lawmaker said that Mr. Wilson, a Republican, and legislative leaders from her party were near agreement on a plan to lower the state's personal income tax while protecting school aid.

"With anticipated tax revenues being good, we would continue to have healthy funds for education," Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni, the Democratic chairwoman of the education committee, said of the new plan.

But there are other possible obstacles to an agreement.

For example, Gov. Wilson in May proposed tapping the state's projected $4 billion budget surplus to add $500 million to his original $24.6 billion K-12 spending plan for fiscal 1999. Most of the new aid would be earmarked for textbooks and materials for science labs and libraries. California's fiscal 1998 budget provided $22.4 billion for K-12 education.

If approved, Mr. Wilson's budget would be the first to set K-12 spending above constitutionally guaranteed minimum-aid levels since those levels were set by a voter-approved state constitutional amendment in 1988.

But Democrats, who control both the Senate and the Assembly, want an additional $300 million for schools, over and above Mr. Wilson's May proposal, mostly in discretionary money that districts could spend as they saw fit.

"There is going to be discretionary money," Ms. Mazzoni said. "It's very important to school districts, but the governor has been resistant."

Accountability for local school performance also has been thrown into the budgetary fray.

The governor is pressuring budget negotiators to accept his proposal to dispatch new state education-auditing teams to evaluate the lowest-performing schools and to impose sanctions against schools that failed to improve.

Democrats Urge Flexibility

Ms. Mazzoni said Democrats agree that the state should beef up accountability and create an independent agency to monitor those efforts. But districts should have the flexibility to draft their own accountability programs, she argued.

Rich H. Halberg, a spokesman for Gov. Wilson, said late last week that it was not clear whether his boss was willing to hold up the budget until he gets his wish. "I do know that he wants to see his proposal passed," he added.

Paul Warren, the director of the education unit for the state legislative analyst's office, predicted that a final budget was near. "Things are moving now," he said. "They're talking about the fine points of an agreement."

In the meantime, the delay has made life difficult for the state's 1,000 local districts, which already have adopted tentative budgets for the 1998-99 school year. They will have 45 days to revise their budgets after a final state spending plan is adopted.

"We're in year-round session now, and we're still waiting to see how much money they're going to give us," said Ann Jones, the assistant superintendent of business affairs for the 10,500-student Franklin McKinley Elementary School District in San Jose.

The district, which began its new school year July 1, remains unsure about an estimated $1 million in new state aid, which could be earmarked for specific uses or come as discretionary revenue.

"I'm frustrated," Ms. Jones added. "There's no way we can accurately project our revenue."

Vol. 17, Issue 43, Page 22

Published in Print: August 5, 1998, as Education Issues Holding Up Agreement on California's Budget
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