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A Hard Lesson About Money

One can always tell that the debate over an important public issue has plateaued when you hear the same threadbare points being made over and over.

It would be tragic if we’ve already reached that stage in the discussion of education funding in California. But when I checked my Magic 8-Ball it said, “Outlook not so good.”

The cliche of the moment, courtesy of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s apologists, is that he hasn’t proposed “cutting” spending for education in his new budget; he’s giving the schools more money than they got last year -- just not as much as they expected.

This is true, as far as it goes. The governor recommended a general-fund appropriation of $33.1 billion, which is $2.2 billion or so less than he promised in a deal he cut with the schools last year. But it is an increase of about $2.1 billion, or nearly 7%, over what they received in the last budget.

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The semantic -- or is it mathematical? -- dispute is a classic example of how politicians distract us with total irrelevancies. If we’re really interested in educational funding, the important question isn’t whether the schools are getting more or less money this year compared with last. It’s whether they’re getting enough.

And the answer is clear: They’re not.

That view becomes inescapable after reading Rand Corp.'s recent report on the condition of K-12 education in California. No matter how one measures the state’s school spending, we’re behind the rest of the country and falling further back.

Here are the raw figures. California’s per-pupil spending in 1969-70 was $600 more than the national average; in 1999-2000 it was $400 below the average. California ranks 30th in the country in per-capita spending on K-12 education. (In spending on prisons, we’re 11th, if anyone’s looking for something to feel good about.)

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Measured as a percentage of statewide personal income, the state’s spending matched the national average in the 1970s at about 4.5%; today it’s about 1.2 percentage points below the national average.

Rand concluded that, given the state’s lofty per-capita income, California possesses a relatively high capacity to fund its schools “compared with its ‘effort.’ ” (I was tempted to view the quotation marks as a subtle editorial comment by the Rand team, but its leader, Stephen J. Carroll, assures me that they merely indicate a lack of professional consensus on how to define funding “effort.”)

What’s the harvest of such penny-pinching?

California pupil-teacher ratios are the second-highest in the country, behind only Utah. Our fourth- and eighth-grade performance on the one standardized test administered nationwide is third from last; Louisiana and Mississippi are all that stand between us and the ultimate booby prize.

These statistics belie one tired argument -- that the schools have plenty of money but use it inefficiently.

That was certainly the subtext of the governor’s nasty crack about underperforming teachers in his state-of-the-state message: If only we redistribute salary dollars to reward good teachers and punish bad ones, the kids will shine. Similarly, after I wrote a recent column arguing that fixing education can’t be done on the cheap, I got numerous e-mails saying: “You can’t solve a problem by throwing money at it.”

But while it’s true that you can’t solve many problems only with money, there are precious few you can solve without money.

The truth is we’ve starved the schools through our own absence of mind. The graphic evidence screaming out from the Rand report is that the inflection point at which California’s school spending began its long march from the front of the class to the rear is 1979, when Proposition 13 went into effect.

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The property tax rollback did more than constrain the state’s ability to raise revenue. It shifted the educational bankbook from local districts to Sacramento, which further hamstrings the schools by doling out an increasing share of funding as categorical aid, which means districts have little discretion over how to spend it.

This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, if state officials themselves had any sound idea of where the money should go. But Carroll notes that even though we have two statewide officials charged with supervising education -- Education Secretary Richard Riordan, who’s appointed, and State Superintendent Jack O’Connell, who’s elected -- we engage in almost no serious public discourse over how to run the largest public school system in the country.

That’s not to say we haven’t tried new things. Carroll points out that California has been a leader in several educational reforms over the years -- equalizing revenue across districts, creating charter schools, imposing statewide standardized testing, reducing class sizes. But we’ve failed to make the effort to integrate these changes into a consistent education policy.

The same lackadaisicalness is true of our budget priorities. It’s not as though the state’s voters ever actually decided that we should rank 11th in prison spending and 30th in schools. It just happened.

“The schools are a very huge enterprise, and we’ve never sat down and thought about how you run the system,” Carroll told me. “Instead we grab hold of one nifty idea after another.”

According to the latest statewide survey by the Public Policy Institute of California, education has reemerged as the voters’ top priority. That’s why the argument over whether or not the governor is cutting education spending feels as grounded in reality as discussing whether we need a landing strip for UFOs in Griffith Park.

What the schools need is more money, more attention and, for once, intelligent debate.

Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. You can reach Michael Hiltzik at golden.state@latimes.com and read his previous columns at latimes.com/hiltzik.

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