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Wilson to Take U.S. Funds for Schools

Education: Federal officials vow no interference with state reforms, governor says in accepting $42 million.

April 21, 1996|DAVE LESHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Pete Wilson has decided to accept $42 million for California schools from Washington's controversial Goals 2000 program, ending months of political hand-wringing about whether the move represents unwelcome federal intervention.

The governor's action Friday appears to validate the program's proponents, who long have argued that it does not compromise local or state authority. But Sacramento Republicans said Wilson's decision will trigger an outcry from conservative lawmakers who believe that the program insidiously injects the federal government into state schools.

Wilson had expressed some of the same concerns in the past. But he said he was satisfied after a recent telephone discussion with U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley in which the governor obtained assurances that California's participation would not compromise the governor's authority to implement proposed reforms such as single-sex schools and a pilot voucher program.

Sources said the governor will order release of the money, which has been transferred to the state, after a written confirmation of the telephone agreement is received from Riley.

"Thank you for . . . your personal assurances that participation in Goals 2000 will in no way jeopardize state implementation of specific California programs and goals," Wilson wrote in a letter Friday to Riley that was obtained by The Times. "It is my understanding that . . . Goals 2000 funding will in no way subject the state of California or any of its local school districts to any interference from the U.S. Department of Education."

The issue of whether to accept the Goals 2000 money left Wilson in a political sandwich for more than a year, caught between moderate Republicans and Democrats who support more education money and conservatives who seized the issue as a rallying point for their crusade against federal intervention in education.

One of the main complaints about the program is that it establishes a set of suggested national academic standards--a subject that opponents consider to be a local matter. The program launched by President George Bush in 1989 offers money--almost $400 million last year--to help states meet national academic goals in eight subject areas, such as math, reading and science.

In the context of the state's overall $16.4-billion budget for elementary and high school education, $42 million is a relatively small amount. The money will go to school districts statewide for an assortment of uses. The Los Angeles Unified School District would get $9 million over two years; Orange County schools, $2 million, and Ventura schools, $900,000.

In making his decision, Wilson acted to mollify critics and supporters. Sources said Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, a Democrat, concurred in his decision even though she does not support all the programs that Wilson sought to protect. Eastin was on vacation and unavailable for comment.

Other Democrats who pressured Wilson to accept the money hailed the governor's move and used the opportunity to charge that his indecision was caused by conservative politics, not the state's interest.

"The well-being of our school children has finally triumphed over right-wing ideology," said Democratic Lt. Gov. Gray Davis. "Better late than never."

Senate Democratic Leader Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) downplayed the significance of Wilson's conditions for the money since he is skeptical about whether the reforms being protected will be approved by the Legislature. He also needled the governor about being hypocritical over federal funds.

"You can't criticize the federal government for failing to help pay the costs of illegal aliens and at the same time reject federal aid for California schools," Lockyer said.

Wilson officials are most worried about criticism from their own ranks. GOP legislative leaders were briefed on the governor's decision and some lawmakers warned that the governor's action will cause "significant concern among quite a few," according to one GOP source.

In Sacramento, lawmakers such as Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) have argued that the state is better off on its own.

"The [Assembly Republican] caucus did express their concerns about the Goals 2000 money and the strings that were attached," Gary Foster, Pringle's spokesman, said Friday evening. "If the governor feels like he will be able to accept this money without those strings, then we trust the governor's decision to take it."

Wilson had the Republican complaints in mind when he outlined conditions to Riley that include some conservative pet projects, such as a proposal to allow students attending schools with poor academic performance to obtain vouchers that can be used to seek public or private education elsewhere. The governor also sought written protection from Riley for the state's in-home education program.

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