Constitution By Richard Colvin
Special to Education Week
Los Angeles--By a razor-thin margin, California voters last week approved a measure giving public schools and community colleges hundreds of millions more in revenues this year and assuring them a set percentage of the state’s budget in future years.
The measure, Proposition 98, makes California’s constitution the first in the nation to “guarantee” a specified proportion of the state budget for education.
It also amends the constitution’s so-called Gann limit on state spending to re6quire a portion of any excess revenues to be earmarked for the schools and community colleges. And it requires school districts to issue annual report cards on each of their schools.
Supporters of Proposition 98--including the state school chief, Bill Honig, and groups representing teachers, administrators, and parents--were ebullient over the victory, which was won by only 135,000 votes out of 8.7 million cast.
The success was especially sweet for the California Teachers Association, which led the drive to place the measure on the ballot.
California voters also approved three education-related bond measures by large margins.
Proposition 98 will entitle schools to an immediate boost of between $215 million and $800 million, according to various estimates. The state now has a $600-million reserve, but if the new money needed for schools exceeds that amount or if Gov. George Deukmejian refuses to dip into the reserve, funding for health programs, law enforcement, and colleges and universities could be slashed.
The Republican Governor, who had been among the measure’s most vocal opponents, last Wednesday called it “highly irresponsible” and said it would have a “significant effect ... on how we’re able to deal with the literally thousands of other requests we get for funding.”
Others said last week that the real significance of the measure would come in future years, when the schools would be guaranteed either at least 39 percent of the state’s general-fund budget, or the same amount they received the previous year after adjustments for inflation and enrollment increases, whichever is higher.
This year, the measure means that the schools will receive at least $14.1 billion out of a $36-billion state budget. In future years, it could guarantee billions more for schools.
“It is a major, major step for public education,” said Mr. Honig, who spent $500,000 of his own campaign funds to lobby for the proposal. “It means we can get on with the job of quality education and we don’t have to get as involved with Sacramento politics.”
Mr. Honig acknowledged that exempting schools from the annual political and financial tug-of-war of state budget-making was “special treatment” and “an extraordinary vote of confidence in the schools.”
Ed Foglia, president of the California Teachers Association, said the vote showed a ground swell of support for education. “This is really a turnaround and we’re really excited,” he added.
But he cautioned that schools would not improve overnight, and that the additional money would merely enable them to cover the costs of educating a student population that is growing by 140,000 pupils annually.
“What we’ve established is a floor that is going to allow us to start growing and planning and making the necessary changes,” said Mr. Foglia, whose organization co-sponsored the measure and contributed $4.5 million, or about $50 per member, to its passage.
Proposition 98’s passage may indicate that the California electorate has changed its mind after imposing limits on state spending for the last 10 years. Mr. Honig and others said that educators had successfully defended themselves from such attacks in the past, but that Tuesday’s vote was only the second time they had taken the offensive.
Mr. Honig said he expected the vote to provide a boost to similar efforts in other states.
A measure that would have given the state the authority to increase its general-fund spending was defeated by a narrow margin last June.
That vote had been seen as a political defeat for Mr. Honig. But observers called last week’s outcome a clear political victory that could provide a significant boost for the state chief’s expected run for the governorship in 1990.
His likely opponent in that race will be Governor Deukmejian. The two have engaged in a highly publicized, on-and-off feud in recent years over the adequacy of the Governor’s budget requests for education.
California voters last week also signaled their support for education by approving:
Proposition 78, which authorizes $600 million in bonds to pay for construction projects for state colleges and universities. It was approved by a vote of 57.6 percent to 42.4 percent;
Proposition 79, authorizing $800 million in bonds to build new schools and renovate and air-condition existing schools. It was approved by a vote of 61.2 percent to 38.8 percent; and
Proposition 85, which provides for $75 million in bonds to build and renovate libraries. It was approved by a vote of 52.6 percent to 47.4 percent.
Following last week’s victory, state education officials were already turning their attention to one element of Proposition 98’s new constitutional mandate that could prove sensitive--the definition of the budget base on which the state guarantee will be calculated.
“There is a disagreement,” acknowledged Joseph Symkowick, general counsel to the education department, over who will provide the figure. Department officials are hoping, he said, to be able to get together with lawmakers and the Governor to “sort it out.”
If they cannot do so, observers said last week, the additional funding for schools could be delayed, possibly even by litigation.
And there may be other consequences looming from the novel move by California voters last week.
The school-finance expert John Augenblick predicted, for example, that state legislators may find “creative” ways to circumvent the guarantee, such as by redefining what constitutes the state “budget.”
“They could find ways to fund things without putting them into the revenue base,” according to Mr. Augenblick. Noting that he did not know of any other state-funding provision “quite like” Proposition 98, the expert said he doubted nonetheless “whether this is really the protection that people think it is.”
“On the other hand,” he added, “its passage indicates the support people have for education and legislators should act accordingly.”
Staff Writers Nancy Mathis and William Snider contributed to this report.