Gov. Jerry Brown walks to a news conference on proposed education spending… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)
SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday promised lawmakers "the battle of their lives" if they balk at his bid to overhaul state education.
A day after Democratic state senators announced their differences with him over his proposal to change the way schools are funded, the governor came out swinging.
"This is not an ordinary legislative measure. This is a cause," a combative Brown said at a Capitol news conference, flanked by 20 school superintendents who support his program. "I will fight any effort to dilute this bill."
Brown wants to direct more money to districts that serve large numbers of poor students and non-native English speakers than to wealthier areas, while giving all of them more flexibility in how they spend state dollars. Senate Democrats want a less radical redistribution of money, more restrictions on how it is spent and a one-year delay in any funding change.
Brown vowed to do everything in his power to protect his plan. "If people are going to fight it, they're going to get the battle of their lives," he told reporters. "Everything we have to bear in this battle, we're bringing it."
The nascent dispute adds to differences that have already emerged between Brown and fellow Democrats in other key policy areas, including healthcare, water and environmental rules. And an Assembly committee on Wednesday rejected a Brown proposal to speed students toward graduation in hopes of lowering costs in California's two public university systems.
The proposal is part of the governor's larger blueprint for overhauling higher education, which a legislative analysis said "could lead to less rigorous courses … or grade inflation."
The rifts could grow as the legislative session rolls toward summer and negotiations begin in earnest on Brown's proposed budget, which contains his education plans. Democrats won supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature in last November's elections — enough to override a gubernatorial veto.
Brown set education as his top priority in January, saying: "Equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice." On Wednesday, he said his school funding proposal was a matter of civil rights and the key to reversing a growing gap between rich and poor in California.
"Increasingly this state is turning into a two-tier society," he said. "Those at the top are doing better and better and those in the middle and the bottom are doing worse and worse.
"The very least that we can do is invest in our schools in a way that recognizes reality," he said.
Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. John Deasy was among those joining Brown on Wednesday. He said the governor's plan could mean as much as $300 million more annually for the district than the Senate Democrats' proposal.
Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who briefly discussed the education issue with Brown on Tuesday and plans a news conference Thursday to detail his counterproposal, said he supported the central goal of more funds to help poorer students. But he said his caucus had other ideas about how to ensure that the money would help the right students.
Brown and the lawmakers are haggling over how to use about $2 billion of the $49 billion that Brown proposes for K-12 education beginning in July. The governor said he was concerned the Senate's preference, which is to distribute the $2 billion to more districts around the state, would dilute its impact.
"It's a relatively small amount of money," Brown told reporters. "If you spread it out to all the districts, it will have a trivial effect. If you put it into the districts that have high concentrations of poverty, it will have a very powerful effect."
Brown also railed against lawmakers' preference for limiting the flexibility he wants to give school districts, saying there are groups with "very powerful lobbyists" who want to protect the status quo.
Steinberg took Brown's comments in stride.
"The governor introduced this plan in January, but now he's beginning to engage," the Senate leader said. "And we're ready to engage."
During Wednesday's Assembly committee hearing, lawmakers, university officials and activists aired concerns about the governor's plan for higher education, which involves tying some new state funds to requirements that include higher graduation rates.
Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla (D-Concord) said Brown's ideas seem "like we're talking about a factory, with these projections and percentages and outcomes."
A representative of the Legislative Analyst's Office said the governor's plan should focus more on ensuring that students are receiving a quality education and are correctly trained for the workforce.