When voters passed Proposition 98, which was supposed to guarantee 40% of the state general fund annually to the public schools, they surely believed that it would guarantee stable, ample support for education. But this year's budget dealing in Sacramento has put the lie to such beliefs. Like all ballot-box budgeting, Proposition 98 was doomed to failure from the start.
Don't be fooled by recent headlines trumpeting the "saving" of Proposition 98. In fact, Los Angeles schools are being cut by $241 million. Many other districts are near bankruptcy.
How is it that the initiative, passed in 1988, has been saved but our schools still face massive cuts? The answer says a great deal about both budget gamesmanship and the false promise of Proposition 98.
When Gov. Pete Wilson presented his initial state budget proposal in January, he proposed reducing school funding by $2 billion and suspending Proposition 98. Rather than attack the folly of Wilson's cuts, the proposition's sponsors inside and outside the Legislature chose to focus on the symbolism of keeping their pet initiative intact. Their political paranoia kept them from understanding that suspension of 98 could actually be a means to obtain more money for schools. Since the strategy of trading suspension for more money amounted to an admission that Proposition 98 was a mistake, the sponsors chose to ignore it.
Our state politicians have played out a cynical game of symbolism and semantics. Democratic leaders developed a measure that would cut school funds for this year, immediately "loan" the money back to schools, and then make the real cut next year. This clever shell game keeps Proposition 98 in place while leaving local school districts holding the bag and facing deep staff cuts. Proposition 98 should not be "saved." It should be repealed.
Under the Capitol dome, perception is much more important than reality. Success is measured by the response of powerful interest groups and the symbols developed for public consumption. Gov. Wilson and the Legislature negotiated a back-room budget deal that slashes state funding for public schools while keeping certain education interest groups happy.
The politicians in Sacramento and their clever staffs always find ways to get around so-called "mandated spending formulas." The bottom line must be actual state financial support for schools, not the perpetuation of a paper proposition. The sponsors' enormous investment in the passage of Proposition 98 has blinded them to the measure's inherent shortfalls. Rather than lose public face they are leading public education to ruin.
The minimum school funding guaranteed by Proposition 98 has become the maximum. Growth in one educational program must come at the expense of another. The debate about what schools need has been replaced by the manipulation of complex formulas that only an accountant could understand.
The Proposition 98 formula was always inadequate, like most ballot initiatives. Its supposed 40% "guarantee" is full of loopholes, including one that allows school funding to be cut further during an economic downturn. It makes little allowance for Los Angeles' 2 1/2% yearly growth in enrollment and none for increases in uncontrollable costs, like the proposed increase in telephone taxes or this year's proposed higher water rates.
The answer is not more gimmicks. The answer lies in repealing Proposition 98 and replacing it with leadership and accountability on the part of our elected officials. No matter how hard we try to build a better chicken coop, our eggs are at risk as long as the same foxes are left to stand watch.