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Senate OKs Bill to Ease Crowding in Classrooms

Times Staff Writer

In a move that Democrats apparently hope will embarrass Republican Gov. George Deukmejian in an election year, the Senate voted strong bipartisan passage Thursday to a twice-vetoed school aid plan designed to reduce crowded classrooms.

The legislation by Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara) would cost $60 million the first year, but increase to as much as $800 million a year by 1995. The aim of the bill is to lower the average class size in California from 30 pupils, one of the highest levels in the nation, to 20 students.

Hart’s bill would reward local school districts for reducing class size by paying them an additional $210 for each student enrolled in grade levels where class size reductions are implemented.

Sent to Assembly

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Both Republicans and Democrats joined in supporting the legislation, which was sent to the Assembly on a 31-5 vote. Deukmejian has twice vetoed similar versions of the bill and is expected to do so again.

Several Republicans complained that the chief purpose of the bill was to embarrass the governor, who is seeking reelection to a second term.

Sen. Jim Ellis (R-San Diego) said he went to the Senate session prepared to vote for the bill because of concerns over classroom overcrowding, but changed his mind after hearing what he called “purely a partisan political attack on the governor.”

One attack came from Sen. Alfred E. Alquist (D-San Jose), chairman of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee, who noted that California had a worse ratio of teachers to students than Mississippi, a state that he considers a symbol of backward social thinking.

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Alquist said the governor was guilty of “shameful hypocrisy” for calling education his top budget priority and then vetoing bills designed to reduce class size.

Sen. Barry Keene of Benicia, the Senate Democratic floor leader, said the governor, whom he repeatedly called “candidate Deukmejian,” goes about the state portraying himself as a friend of education. He urged his colleagues to “give Duke a chance” to prove it by giving him another opportunity to sign the bill.

Responding for Deukmejian, Kevin Brett, the governor’s assistant press secretary, said: “The governor’s critics are deliberately ignoring the facts for their own narrow political purposes. The facts are that 55% of the state’s general operations budget, or $16.9 billion out of $30.6 billion (in general fund expenditures), is being devoted to education. This is the largest share . . . given to education in 20 years.”

GOP Supporter

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While conceding that Democrats were trying to use the bill as a device to embarrass the governor, Sen. John Seymour (R-Anaheim), a top-ranking Senate GOP spokesman, said he supported the legislation because he believes action must be taken to reduce class size.

“I think it’s extremely unfortunate that Democrats take every opportunity to turn serious issues into partisan debates. But I felt strongly about the issue and so I voted for it and swallowed hard when it came to the partisan stuff,” Seymour said.

One of the four Republicans who voted against the bill, Sen. James W. Nielsen of Rohnert Park, the Senate Republican floor leader, was initially a co-author of the legislation. But he said the bill had been so heavily amended, in part to satisfy teacher unions, that it no longer contained reforms he sought, such as requiring higher performance standards by teachers.

“The governor should veto it until such time as we get reforms,” he said.

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The only Democrat who opposed the bill was Sen. Daniel E. Boatwright of Concord, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, who said reducing class size is “a laudable goal” but claimed that the state cannot not afford it because of budget constraints. He reminded other members that Deukmejian only Wednesday vetoed more than $700 million in spending from the nearly $37-billion new state budget.


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