For Education, a Modest Boost, but No Windfall

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Rather than the windfall they had hoped from the continuing comeback in the California economy, public schools are in for only a modest boost in spending next year if the Legislature approves Gov. Pete Wilson's proposed 1996-97 budget.

Schools would get $1.7 billion more but almost all of that money would be eaten up by higher expenses, the cost of serving more students and initiatives such as Wilson's push for improvements in reading and math. That would leave very little for repairing the damage done to school programs by recession-related belt tightening.

When all aspects of the budget are considered, public education would get about $100 more per pupil, some of which would go for more computers, textbooks, special alternative schools and other purposes. But in terms of basic per-pupil income--the money that schools use to pay teachers, buy most textbooks and pay for heating and lighting--revenue would go up about 2%.

California's public colleges and universities also could share in the state's generally improved economic condition. Not only does the budget include enough to offset any fee increases, as the governor announced last week, it also increases basic funding for all three systems.

The University of California system would receive a boost of about $110 million, or 6% increase, which UC President Richard C. Atkinson said "demonstrated [Wilson's] wholehearted commitment to higher education and the need to safeguard UC quality and access."

But Lt. Gov. Gray Davis is seeking a commitment that fees will stay about the same for several years. He urged Wilson and the Legislature to establish a long-term policy on higher education funding as well as fees.

"We have some breathing space" created by the improving economy, Davis said. "Let's take advantage of it."

Some public school educators are worried that Wilson's plan to cut taxes will hit schools the hardest, with a potential loss of $5 billion over the next four years.

But Wilson said the tax cut would stimulate California's economy, producing more revenue and greater school funding.

Those who criticize the tax cut proposal's impact on school funding "are missing the big picture," he said.

The "biggest threat to public education," he said, is a "stagnant economy," not a tax cut. "Money alone is not the sole key to improving schools," Wilson said.

State Sen. Mike Thompson (D-Santa Rosa), disagreed, saying that "if we underfund our schools . . . that's worse for the economy."

State Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin said she also opposes the tax cut. Still, she said, the budget proposal is the "opening shot of a long exchange and it's the best I've seen in the last nine years."

Even the California Teachers Assn., the state's largest teachers union and generally one of the governor's harshest critics on school funding, gave the budget proposal a passing grade.

"At first glance, it's not all bad news . . . in fact, it's pretty positive," said union Executive Director Carolyn Doggett. "We've come off so many years where we look at a budget and we're looking at nothing. [This] is certainly an improvement."

In a memo included with the budget, Wilson indicated his strategy for accepting $42 million that would be California's share of a controversial federal education reform plan known as Goals 2000. Last summer, Wilson said he was considering rejecting the money because it came with too many federal regulatory strings attached.

The governor was widely criticized for that position by educators, business leaders and politicians who said sending the money back to Washington would squelch education reforms in hundreds of school districts around the state.

On Wednesday, Wilson said he was willing to accept the money but only if the federal Department of Education gave the state an "absolutely gold-plated, iron-clad guarantee [that] legally . . . they could not in any way interfere" with state decisions on education.

In particular, he said, his office is concerned that the federal government will try to block his proposal to set up single-sex academies and initiate a voucher program to help students in the state's poorest-performing schools transfer to other public schools or private institutions.

If he decides not to accept the federal money, however, he said he is willing to make sure the schools do not suffer by covering the losses with state money.

* WELFARE REFORM: Wilson unveils plan to overhaul state programs. A16

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