California legislators ended this year’s session with a flurry of education activity that determined the shape of a major new aid package for the state’s lowest-achieving schools, but failed to land a plan for billions of dollars in school construction on the statewide ballot.
Bedeviled by the state’s energy crisis, the redrawing of political districts, and a downturn in the economy, some lawmakers had scaled back their expectations even before the final week of the session was disrupted by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon outside Washington.
In light of those lower expectations, many legislators hailed the bill that would put an additional $200 million into schools at the bottom of the achievement heap. They said the measure makes good on the state’s commitment to education—and adds a fine capstone to the session.
Yet some lawmakers lamented the collapse of a plan to put some of a proposed $23 billion in bond money for school construction before the state’s voters next March. Among them was Sen. Richard Alarcón, who said his Los Angeles County district has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of year-round schools, because of a space shortage.
“I am disappointed we were not able to get a school bond issue on the ballot,” said Mr. Alarcón, the Democratic whip and a member of the Senate education committee. “It will be a major focus of our activities next year.”
Bond Plan Postponed
Leading lawmakers rushed to make a deal on school construction money just a day before the legislature adjourned in the wee hours of Sept. 15.
Advocates of the school bond had been buoyed by a signal from Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, that he would support billions in borrowing. But legislators and the governor got bogged down over whether to put a $12 billion school bond on the March 2001 ballot or wait until a later election.
Nonetheless, a proposal to raise $23 billion from two separate bond issues over the next four years has widespread support in the legislature, though school officials and other advocates have said even more money is needed for school facilities.
Just three years ago, Golden State voters approved a $6.7 billion bond issue for school construction, touching off a scramble for the money among hundreds of districts coping with dilapidated or crowded buildings. Los Angeles residents subsequently filed suit, arguing that the state’s method of distributing the funds would leave their district with scraps. When the method was altered, a coalition of suburban districts countersued, pointing to urgent needs of their own.
One complication with the March ballot was other bond measures that would appear on it, including $2.6 million for parks. “Nobody really wanted to compete,” said Assemblywoman Virginia Strom-Martin, a Democrat who chairs the lower house’s education committee and headed a legislative committee studying the school bond issue.
Another concern among Democrats, who control both chambers of the legislature, is that the expected low turnout in the March election would hurt the measure’s chances.
Not Giving Up
Still, Ms. Strom-Martin said she hoped the legislature might be able to act on the school bond issue before January, citing the governor’s promise to call the legislature into special session next month. She said lawmakers could then approve a new plan, agreed on just before the session’s adjournment, for a $11.4 billion bond issue to be put on the ballot in November 2002, with a second one for the same amount to follow in November 2004.
Gov. Davis, however, has said next month’s special session will be devoted exclusively to his plan for rescuing a financially strapped Southern California power company.
Before the final gavel, lawmakers did complete work on a bill that would expand aid to low-performing schools. The measure was sketched out in the budget that the governor signed in July. (“California Budget Pinch Leaves Schools Largely Unscathed,” Aug. 8, 2001.)
The new legislation has a narrower focus than an existing state program for schools in which student achievement is low. The bill targets only those elementary schools with the worst performance on state tests.
Schools that qualified on that basis and enrolled in the new program would receive an additional $200 per student. Combined with $200 per pupil that they receive under the existing program, and another $200 in local per-pupil spending that districts would be required to contribute, the new plan means that eligible schools would receive $600 per student in supplemental funds.
“It’s a marvelous breakthrough for California to put $200 million into these schools,” said Sen. John Vasconcellos, a Democrat who chairs the Senate education committee and is an author of the bill.
More Turnaround Time
The new bill also would extend from two to three years the time that schools have to turn themselves around before the state intervenes with its most stringent measures, such as dismissing the entire staff or taking over the school. A school could win an additional year by appealing to the state board of education.
The president of the state’s largest teachers’ union, the California Education Association, praised the bill, which the governor is expected to sign. “This is going a step further” than the existing program for low-performing schools, Wayne Johnson said. The legislation also offers schools welcome flexibility as they strive to meet benchmarks for improving achievement, staffing, parent involvement, and facilities, he added.
With revenues slipping, lawmakers had to be satisfied largely with that one big-ticket item. A bill to make kindergarten mandatory for children, for instance, was passed by the lower house, but was pulled toward the end of the session by its author, Democratic Assemblyman Herb Wesson, because of its potential cost. Mr. Wesson hopes to bring back the bill when lawmakers convene in January.