The legislative analyst's office reignited partisan wrangling Wednesday over California's education spending, saying it is rising faster than other states' and soon could approach the national average.
Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill, a nonpartisan advisor to the Legislature, found that California is spending $342 per pupil less than the national annual average, not $1,000 less than the average as many Democrats and public school advocates contend.
That finding hit at the core issue facing lawmakers as they attempt to shape the new $76-billion state budget--whether to use $4.4 billion in surplus tax revenue to give more money to schools, or cut taxes.
"It makes very clear what we've known is true: The [education spending] increase has been very substantial," Gov. Pete Wilson said in an interview Wednesday, renewing his call for a tax cut in the form of reduced annual registration fees for cars.
Wilson and Republican legislators are proposing what would be the largest tax cut in the state's history, a $3.6-billion phased-in reduction in the car tax, while also proposing a boost of more than $1 billion over the current year in school spending.
As Wilson and other Republicans embraced the legislative analyst's conclusion, state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) pointed out that by any measure, California's school spending still lags behind that of other states.
"What's the difference?" Burton said. "In a perfect world, we should be above the national average. We should be at the top."
Burton, predicting a drawn-out budget fight this summer for the fifth year running, suggested punting on the central issue confronting lawmakers. He proposed putting the question of tax cuts versus more school spending to a statewide vote, letting the electorate decide in November on a pair of ballot initiatives.
One initiative would embody the Republican proposal for a car tax cut. The other would call for a $3.6-billion increase in school spending. Whichever got more votes would win.
In the meantime, the Legislature would pass a state budget, setting aside enough money to pay for either a tax cut or the increased school spending.
"This is a way out of a problem that everyone sees coming," Burton said.
As it stands, the spending plan is nowhere near complete. The state Constitution says the Legislature must approve a budget by June 15--Monday--and that the governor must sign a budget into law by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year.
"There is no chance of getting a budget by June 15," said Assemblyman George Runner (R-Lancaster), a member of the Legislature's budget conference committee.
Still, several Republicans scoffed at Burton's idea. Sean Walsh, Wilson's spokesman, called it "an abdication of legislative responsibility."
"Clearly, like an ostrich with its head in the sand, this bird will never fly," added state Senate Republican Leader Ross Johnson of Irvine.
However, at least one Republican, Assemblyman Tom McClintock of Northridge, a driving force behind the push to abolish the car tax, hailed the idea.
"Let there be a landmark vote on this issue, one that will decide the direction of the state for the next decade," he said.
As lawmakers groped for ways to fashion a new state budget, the legislative analyst came up with a new estimate of how California ranks against other states in school spending.
Using numbers supplied by the U.S. Department of Education, Hill reported that California is spending $5,789 per pupil in the current fiscal year, $342 below the national average of $6,131. That would place California 29th in school spending among all states.
What's more, the gap has been shrinking, she said. In the 1995-96 fiscal year, California spent $697 per pupil below the national average, according to her figures.
If lawmakers approve Wilson's proposed budget, the legislative analyst estimated, California will be spending $227 per student less than the national average. Hill also said California spends $1,000 less per pupil than the eight other largest industrial states.
She said she came up with the new rankings at the request of Assemblyman Runner, an advocate of the reduction in the vehicle registration fee.
Runner used the legislative analyst's data to produce a chart showing that Texas, which ranks just above California in school spending, has math test scores that place it No. 9 among the 43 states that administered a national math test. California ranked 41st.
"The Democrats have been yowling for years," said Wilson, "that the only measure of a public official's dedication to public education is how much they're willing to spend. While spending is important, what is more important is how you spend it."
Criticism From Schools Chief
State Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin immediately denounced the analyst's finding, maintaining that California's per-pupil school spending is $1,000 below the national average. Eastin is running for a new four-year term and uses the $1,000 figure in speeches.
She gave Hill a failing grade in math, saying the analyst had made several critical errors and used out-of-date enrollment numbers in reaching her conclusion on per-pupil spending. Hill defended her figures, saying the U.S. Department of Education had current information.
Eastin bases her numbers on statistics supplied by each state, and compiled by a research division of the National Education Assn., a teachers union that has been compiling such data for decades.
Based on the NEA's compilation, California's spending ranked 41st among all states in the 1996-97 fiscal year, at $5,327 per student, compared with the national average of $6,335.
With increased school spending proposed by Wilson, California probably would inch up to 39th among all states, said Sandra Silva, a fiscal analyst with the California Department of Education.
"If you truly believe we are adequately funding public education," Eastin told Runner in a letter, "I strongly suggest you visit schools in your Assembly district. You will see the lack of textbooks, library books and access to technology. . . . You will find facilities that impede our efforts to provide the finest instruction possible."
The U.S. Department of Education numbers that Hill uses are based on fall enrollment, whereas Eastin counts attendance.