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Reform Plan Would Give More Control to Schools on Spending

Senate leader wants to end dozens of state programs that allot funds for specific purposes. Gov. Davis tried it in 2003.

January 23, 2005|Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Avoiding the traditional Democratic tack of pressing for more money for schools, the leader of California's Senate is instead calling for the state to give schools more control over how they spend state aid, and to direct more money toward impoverished students.

In an interview Friday, Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) said he wants to get rid of the dozens of state "categorical" programs that allot money for specific purposes, such as bilingual teacher training and home-to-school transportation.

In the budget he unveiled this month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed spending $36 billion on schools in the fiscal year that begins July 1. That would be $2 billion less than schools are supposed to get under Proposition 98 guarantees.

School boards have claimed that Schwarzenegger reneged on a deal set last year to give schools full funding through Proposition 98, and many Democratic lawmakers also are calling for more money.

But rather than delve into that debate, Perata has announced that the Senate would hold public hearings around the state -- including ones on education -- in Fresno, Salinas and San Diego as lawmakers try to fashion their own plan for the special legislative session that Schwarzenegger has called.

"As long as the governor believes we should be funding schools less than we have been ... rather than getting into an argument that's basically about money, we want to be discussing reform," Perata said.

He provided only the most skeletal outline of his proposal's goals. They are to make education funding "straightforward, understandable and accountable"; to "acknowledge that some students are more expensive to educate than others, so funding must be fair, flexible and designed to maximize the classroom performance of every student"; and to "recognize that with California already having the highest standards in the nation, the state must get out of the way and trust teachers, parents, school staff and local elected officials."

Eliminating categorical programs is not a new idea. In 2003, Gov. Gray Davis proposed boiling 64 of 110 programs into one block grant, but that proposal was rejected soundly by Democratic legislators.

Many of those programs, such as ones to reduce class sizes, are championed by teachers and other traditionally Democratic groups, and it is unclear what would be included in Perata's ultimate proposal.

"Everybody keeps trying to figure out how to fiddle around with the margins of the system when on a per-student proportion basis we're at the bottom of the country," said Scott Plotkin, executive director of the California School Boards Assn.

Researchers at the Rand Corp. found this month that California spends less per student than the national average, and also lags the nation in teacher pay and student achievement.

"Everyone knows the answer is probably more money, but everyone wants to avoid having the conversation," Plotkin said.

Kevin Gordon, a Sacramento-based educational consultant, said Perata might find common ground with the Schwarzenegger administration on reducing categorical programs.

"It goes along with what school districts have said for a long time, which is set high standards and get out of the way," he said.

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