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Rural, Suburban Areas Ambush Big-City Schools

June 17, 1989|DOUGLAS P. SHUIT | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Turning the tables on urban Democrats, a loosely knit coalition of legislators from the suburban and rural areas of the state exerted new-found muscle in the Assembly this week and won support for a Proposition 98 school funding package that left cities such as Los Angeles out in the cold.

The deal, announced Tuesday, ended an eight-day stalemate and led to Assembly passage of a nearly $50-billion version of the state budget.

While legislators from both sides of the aisle warn about making too much of the vote, some lawmakers are calling the deal "historic" because--if Gov. George Deukmejian and the Senate agree--it will free up hundreds of millions for money-starved suburban and rural schools by directing money away from urban districts.

At stake is the new money, roughly $1.4 billion over two budget years, being generated for schools by the landmark school funding initiative Proposition 98, which was approved by voters last Nov. 8.

The Assembly plan to implement Proposition 98, to be amended into a long-term school funding bill, was unusual in that it bypassed the Education and Budget committees controlled by big-city Democrats. That was possible because Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) set up a special team of negotiators to draft the proposal.

Once agreed upon by the special team, the plan was informally ratified in a budget vote marked by a rare bipartisan alliance. Casting "no" votes were such members of the urban Los Angeles delegation as Terry B. Friedman, Teresa P. Hughes, Richard Katz, Burt Margolin, Lucille Roybal-Allard and Maxine Waters, all of whom could normally be counted on to vote for a budget bill.

Friedman, expressing concerns shared by other members of the Los Angeles delegation, said he refused to vote for the budget because he believed that the school aid package was "vindictive" and "a purposeful effort to get L.A."

Assemblywoman Hughes, the chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee, which was bypassed by the negotiators who put together the plan, said: "I'm not very pleased. Los Angeles is really getting worked over."

But while the Los Angeles Democrats were crying foul, normally powerless legislators from Orange County, suburban cities such as Glendale and rural and farming communities in California's Central Valley were praising the vote as "historic" because it recognized for the first time in recent years that school finance was out of kilter, with big-city schools drawing most of the dollars.

Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress), noting that Orange County schools will get more than $69 million as a result of the agreement, called it a "foundation for fairness" for future education funding.

Assemblyman Pat Nolan (R-Glendale), who played a leading role in putting the deal together, said Republicans for years have complained that fast-growing suburban and rural communities were being shortchanged in the annual division by political leaders of the roughly $15 billion a year the state gives to school districts. Because they had no hard numbers to back up their contention, two years ago Republicans ordered a study of education expenditures. This year, they got their first report.

What the study showed was that when all the various special state financial aid programs were added up, the Los Angeles Unified School District was receiving $1,045 per pupil, San Jose Unified was getting $1,346 for each student, and San Francisco, Oakland and San Diego were getting $934, $810 and $702 respectively.

Cries of Outrage

Those numbers led to cries of outrage when lawmakers compared them to much lower figures for school districts outside the big cities. For example, in Los Angeles County, Alhambra schools were receiving $232 per pupil, while each student in Glendale was being backed by $192 in state dollars. Elsewhere, Fresno was receiving $432 per pupil; Riverside, $277; Sacramento, $442, and Chula Vista, in San Diego County, $293 per student.

"When we totaled the figures up, it confirmed what we had felt all along was happening. In fact, the disparities were far worse than we had thought," Nolan said.

Aside from the question of fairness, Republicans also had the law on their side. In 1971, the California Supreme Court in a landmark decision ruled that the state's system of financing public education was illegal because there was a huge disparity in funding between rich and poor school districts. As a result of the ruling, the Legislature enacted a series of laws designed to bring about equality in funding, but the figures turned up by Assembly Republicans showed that a huge gap still existed.

Those close to the issue give many reasons for the disparities in funding.

State funding for schools is done in a variety of ways, from unrestricted financial aid based solely on the number of students in each district to grants made in support of more than 50 different special programs, each one designed to meet different needs.

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