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CAPITOL JOURNAL / GEORGE SKELTON

Lessons of the Class Size Battle

July 08, 1996|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Now that we've had a long weekend and the chance to take a deep breath, the fair thing would be to look again at who really deserves credit for reducing class sizes in California's elementary schools.

It isn't only--or even mostly--Gov. Pete Wilson, despite a masterful spin by the governor and his staff.

Wilson deserves credit for finally seeing the light and illuminating the issue. But first he was made to feel the heat, as Ronald Reagan would say. And that heat was generated by Democrats and his old nemesis, the California Teachers Assn.

Not that it matters much to children and parents precisely who provided $771 million to reduce K-3 class sizes from about 30 students to 20. Or kicked in $200 million for portable classrooms, $167 million for a beefed-up reading program--in all, a spending boost of more than $3 billion, the biggest bonanza for schools in years. But let's get the record straight.

We pundits quickly proclaimed that Wilson had boxed Democrats into a corner, stolen their issue and crammed it down their throat. While some of this is true, it really was Wilson who got boxed into a corner by Democrats and had hardly anywhere to go. The Democrats were just too lead-footed to declare victory.

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If things really had gone Wilson's way, schools would have been shorted $6 billion by the year 2000, starting with roughly $350 million this fiscal year. That's what his proposed 15% income and business tax cut would have cost public schools.

Democrats killed the tax cut in the Senate. Democratic budget negotiators--Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer and Assembly Minority Leader Richard Katz--then consented to only a 5% cut in corporate taxes, costing schools just $50 million this year.

Also, if Wilson had carried the day, up to $850 million would have been spent each year for private school vouchers. Senate Democrats last week killed this plan, too.

"It's a sad testament," the governor lamented, that "children are being held hostage" by Democrats "protecting their special interests."

Ah yes, that "special interest"--the dreaded, despised CTA, the bankroller of Democratic campaigns.

Flash back to January and the governor's State of the State address. He said nothing then about reducing class sizes. But he proposed the vouchers and the tax cut.

The CTA was told by a Wilson insider that the voucher proposal was inserted to sidetrack the teachers union. The governor's strategy reportedly was to lure the CTA into spending its advertising stash against the voucher plan rather than the tax cut, his top priority.

The CTA did neither. It knew from polling that voters were still opposed using tax dollars for private schools. And it also knew that voters considered it more important to spend money on public schools than to cut taxes, and were absolutely incensed about overcrowded classrooms.

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The union laid out $2.3 million for TV ads reminding people that California is "50th--dead last" among the states in class size. The feel-good spots featured students whose lives had been turned around by attentive teachers. "More teachers, smaller classes," the ads urged.

The governor was expecting ads that opposed tax cuts or vouchers, says John Hein, the CTA's political guru, "and we threw him a huge curveball."

Wilson, of course, pelted that curve ball. "It could easily have been caught," Hein says. Democrats didn't move fast enough.

As the TV ads ran, Wilson could see tax revenues rising unexpectedly. By law, most had to be spent on schools. The governor was adamant the windfall not be used for higher teacher salaries, which he assumed was the real goal of Democrats and the CTA.

Thinking he was calling their bluff, Wilson proposed what the CTA had been publicly advocating--smaller classes. It was thus the governor who got lured into doing what the teachers wanted. And when Democrats killed the tax cut, the governor proposed even more class reductions.

That's when Democrats should have claimed victory. But they held out for more and got pummeled by Wilson, who suspected and inferred they were angling for teachers' pay.

Actually, money for salary hikes already had been provided when budget negotiators quietly approved about $800 million in school funding adjustments for inflation.

In the end, Democrats squeezed $93 million more from Wilson than he had offered for class size cuts. That made the ambitious project more doable.

Could this have been done without Wilson's pushing? No. Would he have pushed if he'd had another direction to move? Doubtful.

The victorious fighter for public schools, however, is perceived to be the governor. And in politics, perception is reality.

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