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Inner-City School Aid Veto: Partisan Politics or Equity?

July 20, 1987|ELAINE WOO | Times Education Writer

When Gov. George Deukmejian drew his blue pencil through $86.6 million the Legislature had earmarked for school districts with substantial inner-city enrollments, California school districts were mortified if not surprised.

The governor had proposed eliminating the money last January, but two weeks ago when he actually axed the special grants--called urban impact aid and Meade aid--school officials up and down the state shuddered.

When the bad news was broken to the leaders of the largest urban districts at a Sacramento meeting, one participant, Compton schools Supt. Ted D. Kimbrough, described the mood as "like a funeral. People were saying, 'Where should we bury the corpse?' "

Urban impact aid and Meade aid were created by the Legislature in 1978 to help urban school districts cover the extra costs of educating poor and minority children. Among the major needs were teaching children not fluent in standard English and fighting vandalism and school crime.

Deukmejian's critics say his veto of the $86.6 million--which represents more than half of the $170 million worth of cuts the governor ordered in the budget for kindergarten through 12th grades--was politically motivated.

The governor's veto of the urban aid "was a partisan thing to do," said state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig, whose charges that the public schools were badly shortchanged in the budget put him in bad graces with the governor. "The cuts hit primarily Democratic areas of the state. (The urban impact aid) was just a convenient target."

Deukmejian's education adviser, Peter G. Mehas, said the governor vetoed the money not because of party politics but because the formula used for distributing urban aid is "very unequal and unfair. It's a matter of equity."

The problem, Mehas pointed out, is the 1978 law that spelled out the criteria that districts must meet to receive the urban impact aid.

That law said only urban districts that had certain levels of poverty, ethnicity and transiency present in 1978 could qualify for the aid. For the most part, districts that meet these criteria, such as Compton, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland, happen to be represented by Democratic lawmakers.

A number of other districts that do not qualify for aid have undergone dramatic demographic changes due to Asian and Latino immigration since 1978. In the Garden Grove, Lynwood, Norwalk-La Mirada and Riverside school districts, the number of poor and minority students has grown substantially in recent years. In Garden Grove, for instance, the minority enrollment has doubled to 50% since 1978, with Asian pupils representing the fastest-growing ethnic group.

Coincidentally, Republicans represent large parts of three of those districts. Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress), whose district includes Garden Grove, has led the most recent effort to change the formula to benefit the other school districts.

"Those districts are saying, 'Gee you've got to recut this pie to include us,' " said former state Sen. Dennis Carpenter, a Sacramento lobbyist whose clients include the Garden Grove school district.

Until this year, large urban districts that have received the aid opposed changing the 1978 formula. But the governor has given them cause to reconsider their opposition.

In denying the urban impact aid this year, Deukmejian took the side of Garden Grove and other districts that want to be included. He said the information on which the funding was based was "over 10 years old and . . . (has) not confirmed that those districts eligible for these funds have higher educational costs than those districts which are not eligible."

Thus, he blue-pencilled the entire appropriation.

'Absolutely Ridiculous'

Assemblywoman Teresa P. Hughes (D-Los Angeles), chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee, said the governor's action was "absolutely ridiculous, unfair and silly. Just because every district entitled to (the money) is not getting it, that does not mean you penalize all districts. . . . This money is the lifeblood of large urban districts . . . and he's making them bleed to death."

According to Deukmejian adviser Mehas, the governor believes that some districts that were slated to receive the funding are not as poor or as heavily minority as they were when the aid was created and that he would like to see "validation" of the districts' higher spending needs. "The state Department of Education has not provided that documentation," he said.

An Education Department spokesman said there are no studies that specifically confirm that urban districts in California have higher costs than rural or suburban districts. But district officials and other education experts say that the proof is easy to obtain.

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