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Readers question state Senate leader's sincerity

March 19, 2009|GEORGE SKELTON

FROM SACRAMENTO — Some political sins are practically unforgivable. Sins like blatant hypocrisy. Covering up instead of fessing up. Soliciting sex in a public restroom.

This column is merely about hypocrisy -- at least its perception.

E-mails began pouring in almost immediately after my last column.

I'd written about new Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) declaring that his "No. 1 priority" -- the "most important" agenda item for California -- was revamping schools with sufficient career tech education to prepare students for the "new economy."

I pointed out that the percentage of high school students taking some course in career tech -- formerly called vocational education -- had fallen from 74% in 1987 to 29% last year. Meanwhile, companies have been complaining that California schools aren't producing enough skilled workers.

Blame the elitist attitude that if a kid doesn't obtain a four-year college degree, he's doomed to failure. So high school curricula are shaped to meet university requirements. Also blame the high cost of career tech courses, which places them at risk during every budget crisis.

Steinberg and other Senate Democrats proposed a packet of career tech legislation. Senate Republican leader Dennis Hollingsworth of Murrieta chimed in that "there is a lot of common ground across party lines" on career tech.

But wouldn't you know it: As I quickly learned, Steinberg -- along with the other legislative leaders and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger -- had just negotiated a deficit-reduction package that whacked career tech funding by 15% this fiscal year and an additional 5% the next. Moreover, most programs were left vulnerable to complete elimination by penny-pinching school districts.

"A lot of 'common ground' and a lot of hypocrisy," e-mailed one school superintendent.

An assistant superintendent wrote: "Sen. Steinberg and his cronies . . . have just completed a state budget that not only will DECREASE [tech ed] in high schools, but also in the adult education system."

An Orange County career tech teacher e-mailed that she had read my column "with great interest and horror." She was on break between classes and invited me to call.

"My message for Steinberg," Regina Blankenhorn told me, "is that if he really wants to do career tech education, we're already doing it. We don't want him reinventing the wheel."

What Steinberg, other legislators and the governor must do, however, is reinvent a funding source. They're scrounging for bond, private sector or federal stimulus money.

State money for career tech comes from the debt-ridden general fund. Budget negotiators last month had to fill a $42-billion general fund deficit hole.

Blankenhorn teaches computer use, customer service skills and work ethics at a regional occupational center in Costa Mesa. She works for the Coastline Regional Occupational Program, which serves 21 high schools and this year has enrolled about 8,500 students. She's also president-elect of the Orange County Chapter of the California Assn. of Regional Occupational Centers and Programs -- or ROPs for short.

There are 74 ROPs in California, serving 550,000 students. They're lumped in the state education budget under "categorical" programs. There are 61 so-called categoricals. Of those, budget negotiators cut 42 by 20% over two years and gave school districts the flexibility to use the remaining money for any programs they choose. In other words, ROPs could be cannibalized.

ROP funding was reduced for the next fiscal year to $385 million. For adult education, it's down to $635 million -- as workers are being laid off and need retraining.

The career tech programs are in good company.

Also on the "cut and chop" list are summer schools, counseling, high school class-size reduction, physical education, arts and music.

Similarly cut by 20%, but protected from further butchering, were much smaller career tech programs involving apprenticeships and "partnership academies" linking schools with businesses.

A handful of categorical programs were completely protected from trims, including K-3 class-size reduction and special education.

"We can't be effective if our budgets continue to be cut," Blankenhorn said. "People forget about the high school students who aren't going on to college. They need skills."

I asked Steinberg why he had agreed to such retrenchment if career tech truly was his "No. 1 priority."

"I don't believe we're being hypocritical," he replied. "You cannot ignore the $42 billion [deficit]. We had to make some painful decisions.

"Secondly, in making funds more flexible, the expectation is that districts are going to consider ROPs of sufficient importance they'll continue the programs that work."

Moreover, Steinberg added, it wasn't the Democrats' idea to place categorical programs in jeopardy.

It was the demand of that champion of career tech, Schwarzenegger. The governor wanted to provide maximum flexibility for local schools.

"They know better than Sacramento what they need to get their students to succeed," said H.D. Palmer, the governor's budget spokesman.

When spending must be slashed, added Schwarzenegger spokesman Matt David, "you're going to be cutting programs that are close to your heart. It's the unfortunate result of a broken budget system."

No one's guilty of hypocrisy. But Steinberg may have committed the minor sin of hyperbole when citing his "No. 1 priority."

--

george.skelton @latimes.com

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