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Back to school spending

January 07, 2006

EDUCATION GROUPS AND THE governor's office can (and almost certainly will) quibble about how much money Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger owes California's public schools. It's clear that the extra $1.7 billion he proposes to give them doesn't cover the full tab. It's unclear that the schools are owed $3.8 billion more, as educators claim. Thankfully, everyone seems willing to hold that discussion another day.

What there should be more quibbling about, right now, is what the extra money is used for. Schwarzenegger proposes to spend $400 million of it -- almost a fourth -- on programs that are close to his heart: physical education, art and music, vocational education and teacher training.

Laudable endeavors all, but they're not necessarily high-priority items for many of the state's schools. Schwarzenegger should let local school districts decide the best use for the money.

During the recent lean years, schools dropped nurses, librarians and counselors. They increased class sizes, sometimes to 40 students or more, and deferred maintenance.

They should have an opportunity to make themselves whole and determine what their students most need to meet the achievement goals set by state and federal law.

Adding a third year to a program that mentors and oversees beginning teachers ($65 million) may not be as important to low-performing schools as improving remedial reading and math programs to avoid harsh disciplinary measures from the federal government. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has committed to having all students take a college-prep curriculum in coming years, there may be little need for new art and music programs. But L.A. Unified will almost certainly need more high school counselors and foreign-language teachers.

By spreading this money over six different pet projects, moreover, the governor is diluting its effect. It's doubtful that $25 million to recruit gym teachers, for instance, will make any discernible difference in California schools.

The state's job should be to set the bar for school achievement and to allocate money necessary to meet that bar. It shouldn't be in the business of making schools' decisions for them.

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