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Governing by the Numbers

June 28, 1987

Doing things by the numbers is easy enough in the Army, where only four numbers really count--hut, tewp, threep and fo'. Trying to govern a state by the numbers, which run into the billions, is more complicated and poses a constant risk of marching off in the wrong direction if the numbers are wrong, or in serious dispute.

Our attention was drawn to numbers recently by a suggestion from Gov. George Deukmejian's staff that our analysis of the dispute over $700 million for California public schools was flawed because we failed to assign enough importance to the number $400 million.

That is the number that apparently persuaded the governor that the Legislature's vote to give $700 million to school districts--a bill that the governor vetoed--was an act of partisan mendacity designed to portray him as the Grinch that stole education.

As everybody knows, the governor seems to have reasoned, the 1979 Gann amendment that limits state spending also limits school-district spending, and the state's 1,028 school districts would burst through their limit if they got more than an extra $400 million. Thus the Legislature's effort to give schools the $700 million that they need to maintain the momentum of classroom reforms seemed to him, as we understand it, a sleazy piece of partisanship designed to turn him from a hero of education into a bum because the Legislature knew as well as he did that the schools could not legally spend that much.

The governor's magic number, $400 million, came from his Finance Department. The department got the number from a computer model, based on 1979 statistics that were brought up to date by periodic reports and that assumed that the schools kept their books in ways that took account of the Gann limitation. Nobody seems to know whether they in fact had their eye on the Gann limit, so it is possible that the computer model assumed too much.

In fact, the Finance Department computer originally reported that the school districts could spend somewhat more than $400 million and remain below the Gann limit if they kept their books one way and $600 million below the limit if they kept them another way. The $600 million comes close to what the Legislature wanted to give to school districts.

The Department of Education thinks that the schools are so far below the Gann limit that they could accept the Legislature's gift of $700 million and still have room to spare. The Education estimate comes from a questionnaire answered by 60% of the state's school districts representing 76% of the state's public-school students.

Because the survey showed an uneven pattern, with some districts already at the limit and others reporting that they were very far below it, Education analysts lopped about 25% off the reported capacity of schools to spend without going over the limit, and still found that they could accept--and put to use--more than $700 million.

The final set of numbers in play in Sacramento these days is that of the legislative analyst--numbers that the governor's office says clinch his case. Well, not exactly. The legislative analyst estimated in February that schools could spend $500 million without exceeding the limit.

Obviously, all three estimates involve a great deal of guessing--even though it is educated guessing--certainly enough to question the governor's rigid assertion that the only legal choice that he has is to rebate the $700 million to taxpayers rather than let the Legislature give it to schools.

The margin of error in the Finance Department's guess is also wide enough to suggest an alternative that is perfectly legal under the Gann amendment. He could have signed the Legislature's $700-million gift to school districts and let the districts deal with the question of whether the numbers were right or wrong. If a school district found that it could not legally spend its share of the money, Gann clearly provides that it could have asked voters in its district whether they wanted to spend the money on education or wanted a rebate.

The governor and the Legislature can still give the money to public education, as they should, but time is running out fast. If they don't act by midnight Tuesday, the schools will be frozen out and the governor will have been allowed to march off in the wrong direction--by the numbers.

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