Plan Increases Spending for Public Education by 4%


Having spent two weeks dropping crumbs of information that only whetted the appetites of educators for more, Gov. Pete Wilson on Thursday delivered the main meal:

Essentially, the state's public schools will see a 4% funding increase, or about $190 per student, if the Legislature approves his proposed budget for next year. And the state's two university systems also would get about 4% more money per student and enough extra money to avoid increasing fees. Since Wilson took office in 1990, student fees had shot up to 103% at the Cal State system and 134% at the University of California schools.

"The news is very welcome," said UC Irvine Chancellor Laurel L. Wilkening. "Every year, it's always in question whether the student fees will rise."

Despite the new funding, many state education advocates said they worry that higher costs and a slew of new initiatives will more than eat it up.

They pointed out, for example, that a quarter of the roughly $2-billion pot of new money for the public schools already is committed to Wilson's promise to expand the state's class-size reduction program to cover all students in kindergarten through third grade. That would make it hard to cover salary increases and other basics as more students join the 5.6 million already enrolled in public schools.

Many Democrats say the state ought to cover all of the estimated $800-per-student cost of shrinking classes to 20 students each, rather than expect local school districts to pay for about a fifth of the expense.

"We really hope to fund it at a higher level because we know from schools that they are cutting other programs to implement class-size reduction," said Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni (D-San Rafael), who chairs the Education Committee.

Mazzoni said the governor's proposed 10% tax cut for banks and corporations only adds to the problem because it would eliminate about $88 million that would otherwise be available for schools.

To offset the cost of the program to reduce the size of elementary school classes--which will reach roughly $1.3 billion next year--Wilson froze other items in the budget. Programs serving many of the state's least able students--those who are bilingual or poor, for example--will get no new money.

"These are the very kids who will wind up on welfare if we don't get them some help," said state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin.

Wilson also hopes to freeze spending for adult education, the transportation of students in rural areas, vocational training and other programs. John Mockler, a lobbyist who represents the Los Angeles Unified School District among other clients, predicted a "major dispute" in the Legislature over that issue.

But amid such complaints--which may well get resolved later in the year if, as many expect, the state's tax revenues turn out to be higher than Wilson is counting on--education groups were generally pleased.

"I don't want to sound cranky; I'm very pleased overall," Eastin said.

This marks the third year that Wilson has asked for an increase in the basic amount spent for public education, which would get about $37 billion of the state's overall budget of $66.6 billion.

Higher education would get a boost of about 4% as well, to raise lagging salaries at the nine University of California campuses and the 22 campuses in the California State University system. In addition, Wilson, as expected, plans to devote $67 million to eliminate the need for a 10% hike in student fees.

"We're very grateful to the governor," said UC Budget Director Larry Hershman. "After several years of very high fee increases, these fee buyouts are very welcome. The students and parents benefit a lot."

At UCI, Wilkening said securing money for faculty pay raises has been a top priority. Scores of teachers left the campus through early retirement plans during the early 1990s, a time of major fee hikes and state cutbacks.

"For a while, the campus lost some good people and we fell 10% below our peers," in terms of salary, Wilkening said. "This will enable us to remain competitive."

And while the governor's proposed budget includes $26 million for UCI, primarily for seismic reinforcements and building improvements, university officials said the initiative does not provide money needed for campus expansion.

"It doesn't necessarily accommodate enrollment," said Nadine Wilck, UCI's director of communications. The campus needs to plan for higher enrollment, she said, because it's one of the few campuses with the space to handle it.

Unlike UCLA and Berkeley, where the campuses are largely completed, suburban UC Irvine has acres of space for new buildings.

Wilson's plan also would provide the universities with money to design and operate model elementary and high schools to demonstrate what students need to learn to succeed in college.

Ephraim Smith, Cal State Fullerton's dean of the business school, said there is a growing demand for joint ventures between the universities and their communities. He cited educational partnerships between his university and Orange County school districts.

"They are wonderful experiences for our students and the people who are assisted are well served," Smith said.

In the lower-education portion of his budget proposal, Wilson reiterated his plans to increase spending on teacher training--especially for reading teachers in grades four through eight--and to kick off a program that could eventually equip high schools with as many as 1 million additional computers.

He also reintroduced a proposal--defeated last year--for providing students enrolled in poorly performing schools with vouchers to enable them to transfer to other public schools or to private schools and said he will set aside $5 million to create single-sex academies. Such academies, only one of which is now operating in the state, would be aimed at improving the discipline of boys to keep them on the right track and at helping girls learn by giving them an environment where they don't have to worry about competing with boys.

Wilson also unveiled proposals for:

* $10 million to expand a program that helps beginning teachers by giving them assistance from more experienced mentors.

* $5 million to pay college students and volunteers to help tutor elementary school pupils.

* $5 million to set up a research cooperative between private companies and the University of California to assist in the development of emerging industries.

Times staff writers Tina Nguyen and Kenneth R. Weiss contributed to this story.

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