Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday dealt a blow to educators, proposing $4.8 billion in cuts to California’s public schools and possibly restarting a fight that he hoped had ended with the state’s largest teachers union.
Education advocates vowed to fight the cuts, which Schwarzenegger would accomplish by suspending the holy grail of California’s education system: Proposition 98, the landmark school funding guarantee voters approved in 1988.
“This is going to be one of the most painful, vocal, public, fierce debates about education funding that we have ever seen,” said Brian Lewis, executive director of the California Association of School Business Officials. “We are going to come out of the woodwork opposing any suspension of 98 and any further undermining of this minimal guarantee to kids.”
Having to wield a budget ax over schools is a cruel irony for a governor who just months ago promised he would dedicate 2008 to wide-ranging education reforms in his “Year of Education.”
“What a way to commence the Year of Education, by proposing to balance the budget on the backs of the students in the state of California,” said David Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Association.
Schwarzenegger proposed a nearly 10 percent cut to K-12 spending in the fiscal year that starts this July — about $4.4 billion — as well as $400 million in cuts that could take effect as soon as this spring.
Schwarzenegger sought to downplay the midyear cuts, noting that he could have taken back as much as $1.4 billion in 2007-08 spending. That, he said, “would have been devastating. We must protect our children.”
His plan was devastating enough, educators said.
“We’re already at 43rd in the nation in per-pupil spending. We can’t sacrifice our economic future because we’re in a bad budget year,” said John Affeldt, managing attorney for Public Advocates, a law firm that advocates for education equality.
In a national study released Wednesday, Education Week magazine gave the state a D+ for its education financing system and reported that it spends about $2,000 less per student than the national average, or 43rd among the states. Schwarzenegger’s proposal would cut per pupil spending by another $300 a year.
His plan contradicts the advice of his own education panel, which recommended the state rewrite its school funding formula and add another $6 billion a year for its weakest students. The governor also noted in his State of the State address Tuesday that California schools have a third fewer teachers and half the school counselors than the national average.
His plan would leave few places to cut besides teachers and school staff, since about 90 percent of education spending goes to salaries.
Administration officials said the spending-cut proposal asks the Legislature to find unspent money to minimize the effect this year.
“Schools will be largely unharmed in the current year,” said Jeannie Oropeza, a Department of Finance education budget manager.
Schwarzenegger’s education secretary, David Long, said districts knew midyear cuts were coming and have been preparing.
Local officials, however, said they did not know where the money would come from.
“We can’t stop educating kids or paying salaries in the middle of the year. We still have to buy books and paper and clean our classrooms,” said Ardella Dailey, superintendent of the Alameda Unified School District.
California’s schools, once among the highest achieving, rank below the national average on nearly all academic measures.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell said it also has the most challenging students, more than half of whom come from poor families and a third of whom do not speak English fluently. Its population of 6 million students is higher than the total population of more than half the states.
“The governor’s budget takes a giant step backward. I fear that the ‘Year of Education’ will become the year of education evisceration,” O’Connell said. “This budget will not help us close the achievement gap that threatens the futures of our students and our state.”
The California State University and University of California systems also would see cuts of about $1.1 billion in the 2008-09 fiscal year.
California Faculty Association President Lillian Taiz said those cuts would lead to “course reductions, increased class sizes and longer times to graduation. The loss, in the end, would not only be dollars, but the loss of the hope and optimism about the future that is an intrinsic trait of a society committed to broad educational opportunity.”
Even some Republicans opposed the move to balance the budget by suspending Proposition 98. Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Merced, said he would fight it.
“After all the progress we have made in education, now the governor wants to punish our kids because he didn’t make the spending cuts he needed to make last summer. I find it appalling,” Denham said in a statement.
Schwarzenegger had sought to repair his fractured relationship with the education community in the wake of his disastrous special election in 2005. The California Teachers Association spent more than $50 million then to defeat his slate of ballot initiatives, which included a measure to cap state spending, partly rolling back Proposition 98.
And this year, some 400 of the neediest schools got the first payments from a $2.9 billion legal settlement the governor reached with the CTA after educators claimed he reneged on a budget deal he made shortly after taking office.
That money is slated for additional teachers and teacher training. Budget experts are divided over how much of that could be diverted to other programs in a fiscal emergency.
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