School Beat: The Revised Budget Gives Less Than You Think

by Lisa Schiff on May 18, 2006

Once again the Governor is playing the public education community like his favorite set of puppets. Using the end-of-year revenue upsurge to enable a reprise of his role as an education hero, Schwarzenegger has returned (sort of) a piece of what he took from public school coffers and will portion out the rest over the next seven years. And this is not only supposed to make us happy but make us re-elect him too. Hopefully voters in California will be able to see through this obvious sham. It’s easy to take apart:

First is the amount of money. $2 billion was originally “borrowed” from Proposition 98 education guaranteed funds in 2004 via an agreement brokered with the Education Coalition. This deal included a promise on the part of the Governor to restore the money and to make sure that the baseline which determines future payments was properly reset (http://www.protectstudents.org/budget_facts.html).
Until last Friday, the Governor had unsurprisingly changed his tune and was adamant about not returning the Proposition 98 money. Instead, he went after the entire education funding guarantee concept in the Special Election. Now, after being trounced at the ballot box and and seeing poll numbers dropping, the Governor has gotten a gift from unanticipated economic growth.

The health of the state revenues lets him return the original $2 billion that he borrowed, and give back the rest of the $5 billion that should have since been allocated over the next seven years. While the state is allowed to slowly revamp spending, schools remain stuck with less than adequate budgets. During this tperiod when our cash-starved schools were loaning the state money, SFUSD (and presumable other districts too), closed schools, reduced administrative staff, cut programs and made other painful decisions. What a hero.

So the first point is that the Governor is just giving us ever so slowly what everyone more or less agrees public education was owed to begin with (see http://www.edsource.org/pdf/prop98_04.pdf for an explanation of how Proposition 98 works and why these numbers can be so contested.)..

The second point is about the nature of that money. To keep the metaphor going, the Governor is maintaining the role of puppet master by attaching many strings to the money he’s returning to us.

There are two basic kinds of money that districts get—restricted and unrestricted The label “restricted” says it all; this is money that can only be spent for a designated purpose, such as on facilities, otherwise it can’t be spent at all. Unrestricted funds are the funds that districts get to have some say over, deciding to put resources into certain kinds of programs over others.

At the school site, unrestricted funds translate into things like hiring extra teachers to keep class sizes smaller or hiring counselors. At the district level, unrestricted funds translate into choices such as keeping small schools, establishing innovative programs, paying staff salaries that allow them to live in the city in which they work and more.

On the face of it,this balancing between restricted and unrestricted funds is not an entirely bad thing. Restricted monies are a way for elected bodies that grant money to have some say over programs. In public education, it is a way to ensure that school districts implement certain programs at minimal levels. Except for the accounting and reporting headaches of having to demonstrate that dollars were spent in they way they were supposed to be, if general funds were at a sufficiently high level to adequately meet our basic needs, restricted monies would be no problem.

But as we all know, this is not the case. Despite the Governor’s fresh rhetoric about his high spending rates, we are a long way off from sufficient funding. According to the most recent data from the National Education Association, for the 2003-2004 School Year California’s per student expenditure was a measly $7,584, placing our state at number 29 out of 51 (Washington D.C. is included too. See Table H.11 http://www.nea.org/newsreleases/2005/nr050623a.html).

The Governor claims that he’s going to bring that rate up by about $4,000, but the trick is that a majority of that spending will be in one-time restricted grants. The laundry list of these programs can be found from his own announcement of the education portion of the revised budget (http://www.buildingabettercalifornia.com). They include continued support for some programs, such as school counselors, which are being funded so that the average ratio for counselors is 300 to one at the high school level and 500 to one at the middle school level. Yes, that’s right, 500 to one. This is not something to be proud of.

The number of new one-time programs is extensive, ranging from $250 million for purchasing new physical education equipment to $5.5 million to buy “individual intervention materials” to help students who are at risk of failing the high school exit exam (CAHSEE). These are fine programs, but they may not be the programs a given district or school most needs at the moment. Depending upon where cuts were made over the last few years and depending upon the needs of the students in a given district, such block grants may or may not be at all useful.

Furthermore, these dedicated funds aren’t just distributed evenly to all districts or schools. Nope, we have to apply for them, and potentially get turned down for them if our program isn’t what the Governor had in mind.

There are many ways to describe such a scenario. Ludicrous is perhaps the most polite. The legislative analyst put it a bit more delicately and backed it up with nice tables and associated suggestions – http://www.lao.ca.gov/handouts/education/2006/MR_051606.pdf. These one-time grants are too restrictive and just don’t address the real funding crisis that schools are facing.

Funding problems are not new to public education. Certainly public school supporters have been calling for increases in budgets for K-12 for quite some time now. Local bond measures have been passed throughout the state and the discussions around Proposition 13 are continuing, although they don’t seem to be headed anywhere yet.

At the state level, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) has reported findings from its recent survey on education that California residents support taxing the wealthiest individuals in order to generate more revenue for schools. (The full survey can be downloaded at http://www.ppic.org/main/publication.asp?i=681 ).
But, given the lack of leadership on public education finance at any level in Sacramento, new money is not going to be coming anytime soon. Perhaps a more realizable strategy would be to focus on changing how the current funds are presently meted out.

Along those lines, the PPIC study reports that while California residents want schools to have more money, they also believe that schools could do better with the money we have. Maybe if we were actually allowed to make decisions about how to use that money that statement would be true. Cutting some of the strings and trusting local school districts to make the right decisions about their students would go a long way towards eliminating administrative costs and allowing districts to bend, not break during these lean times. This may be the best we can hope for right now, as changing the structure of funding, as opposed the structure of taxes, is a lot less scary for elected officials.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of the board of directors of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco (http://www.ppssf.org).

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