Davis May Fail to Meet School Funding Target

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Gov. Gray Davis warned for the first time Monday that he may not be able to meet the “guaranteed” funding level for schools required by the voter-approved Proposition 98.

Trying to dampen expectations as he confronts a major budget deficit in an election year, Davis suggested to a union of nonteaching school employees that education spending could grow at a slower rate next year than he previously proposed.

“I’m going to do my level best to meet the Proposition 98 guarantee,” Davis told the California School Employees Assn. “I cannot absolutely commit to you I will do that. That is my goal.”


In his January budget proposal, Davis called for $46 billion in state and local spending on public schools in 2002-03, a $1.2-billion increase over this year’s amount and enough, he said, to meet the requirement of the complex Proposition 98 formula.

However, the nonpartisan legislative analyst calculated that Davis underestimated the requirement and would need to boost spending by $825 million to meet the minimum guarantee.

Now, facing a shortfall most recently estimated at $17.5 billion, Davis is trying to soften what may be a coming blow.

“When we have good years, we ... do lots of things to reward the good work you do,” Davis told the audience. “And when there are hard years, we have to do what everyone in the private sector does--tighten their belt.”

The Democratic governor, who repeatedly has said schools are his highest priority, will release a revised budget proposal in mid-May, after officials tally income-tax receipts filed by Monday’s deadline.

Proposition 98, approved by voters in 1988, requires that about 35% of the state’s general fund be spent on public schools, from kindergarten though community college. In his first three years in office, Davis allocated $2 billion more than the minimum requirement.


Davis did not suggest that he plans to cut school spending. Rather, the rate of increase might not be as steep as it has been. Nor did Davis specifically say he would seek to suspend Proposition 98’s requirements, a move that would require a two-thirds majority vote in the Legislature.

But the possibility of such a move was enough to put some school officials and the head of the powerful California Teachers Assn. on guard.

“Proposition 98 has never been suspended before, even with Republican governors during really bad economic times,” CTA President Wayne Johnson said. “We certainly want to be reasonable. But [suspending Proposition 98] would probably cause a great deal of problems within the California Teachers Assn.”

If Davis proposes downward adjustments in school spending, he likely will face a major fight, with some of his key constituents on the other side. In the early 1990s, Gov. Pete Wilson became the target of a major television ad campaign when he suggested cuts in school spending.

“In addition to the TV ad blitz,” recalled Dan Schnur, then Wilson’s spokesman, “the union instructed its members to have second- and third-grade children write letters to the governor begging him not to fire their teachers. When the CTA is angry, they are an awesome political force to behold.”

Davis’ relations with the 300,000-member teachers’ union already are strained. Johnson last week criticized Davis for opposing a bill to give teachers collective bargaining rights for decisions over textbooks and other issues related to curricula. Davis reaffirmed his opposition to the measure, which faces its first hearing today.


“The only thing I can figure is that he sees some political advantage to it,” Johnson said. “I only assume that he’s thinking that unions per se aren’t popular.”

Davis last week signaled in an appearance before the California Assn. of School Business Officials that there could be some leveling off in the rate of spending increases for public schools, said Kevin Gordon, executive director of the organization.

“It was inevitable the question would come up,” Gordon said. “How together can we make sure investments for education are protected ... without bankrupting the rest of the state? We have to be reasonable.”

Gordon said school business officials believe a suspension of Proposition 98 is preferable to other steps, such as counting some child-care expenses as part of the schools’ pot of money.

However, Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Roy Romer said he believes meeting Proposition 98’s minimum guarantee is “critical.”

“We want to maintain the level of progress that [Davis] wants to make and we want to make,” Romer said.


Although Davis did not elaborate on the education trims he may be contemplating, he did say he plans to fully cover costs related to rising enrollment and other cost-of-living adjustments.