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Gov.'s Not Losing Over Education

Angelides has backing of state teachers union, but voters aren't ready to dump Schwarzenegger over schools, which got record funding this year.

October 17, 2006|Howard Blume | Times Staff Writer

Late in 2004, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was enjoying a surprisingly warm romance with the Democratic-leaning education establishment. An endorsement for reelection was not out of the question.

Then, early in 2005, Schwarzenegger reinterpreted a pledge to educators -- reducing "promised" funding to grade schools and community colleges by about $3 billion.

That "broken promise" inaugurated a war between teacher unions and Schwarzenegger. And it made education-union endorsements of his opponent, Democratic state Treasurer Phil Angelides, virtually automatic.

But polls suggest that, despite this backing and despite the importance Californians place on schools, voters are not convinced they should desert Schwarzenegger for Angelides over education.

It helps that Schwarzenegger last month signed a bill that repays diverted money to settle a lawsuit over the matter, just in time to undermine any attempt to make the governor's alleged bad faith a campaign issue.

Rising overall state revenue helped pave the way. All told, $55.1 billion is being spent on K-12 and community college education -- more than ever before.

But union apparatchiks have neither forgiven nor forgotten. Though there are other notable differences between incumbent and challenger, it was Schwarzenegger's diversion of education funds -- during difficult budget times -- that became a turning point for many, including Barbara Kerr, president of the California Teachers Assn.

"He went from saying, 'I am going to pay it back' to saying, 'I'm not going to pay it back' to saying, 'I never promised to pay it back,' " Kerr said. "It told me you will never know who Arnold Schwarzenegger is. He changes with the political wind and you can't trust him."

And yet, schools are getting about $8 billion more per year than in Schwarzenegger's first spending plan.

"To the union leadership, the funding is never going to be enough," said Peter G. Mehas, a Republican who recently retired as the elected Fresno County superintendent of schools. "Look at this year -- $55.1 billion, the highest that has ever been spent -- more than $11,200 per pupil. And yet the leadership of the union says it's not enough. How much is enough?"

Estimates of how California compares on education funding with other states vary from a little above average to near the bottom, depending on the study and the method of measuring.

The increasing education budget has provided new funding for low-performing schools, teacher recruitment and retention programs, targeted class-size reduction and vocational education courses as well as higher per-pupil funding. The governor has also supported the mandatory state high school exit exam and settled Williams vs. California, the lawsuit brought by civil rights lawyers over conditions in low-achieving schools.

In higher education, he made cuts early in his term, but also stabilized funding for the University of California system, provided money for higher costs and enrollment growth through an agreement with the higher-ed establishment. This compact allows studen fees to increase, but caps the annual rise at 10%.

For his part, Angelides would raise the ante, putting more money and multiyear funding into such efforts as preventing dropouts and closing the achievement gap between black and Latino students and their white peers. For higher education, he promises to roll back student fees, increase money for research and provide particular help to prospective teachers and those who pursue science degrees. He would pay for the programs with higher taxes on the wealthiest Californians and by closing corporate loopholes.

The governor "promised" to maintain education funding guarantees "over his dead body," said Angelides, paraphrasing a Schwarzenegger pledge from the recall campaign that elevated him to governor.

"Time and time again, we've seen that you can't trust Arnold Schwarzenegger to do the right thing by the education of our kids," Angelides said in an interview.

The treasurer's long-established positions and his voting record from his tenure in the Legislature establish him as a consistent ally of teacher unions.

"Phil Angelides pointedly refers frequently to the importance of public higher education, which is relatively unique in a political campaign," said John Travis, the Humboldt State University professor who heads the California Faculty Assn., which has endorsed Angelides. "I am impressed by his knowledge. He really understands the higher education system."

Schwarzenegger's record is the subject of more debate.

Early in 2004, when the state faced a multibillion-dollar deficit, education was in line for a sizable increase because of constitutional guarantees. Schwarzenegger asked for temporary relief and the education establishment proved receptive.

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