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Gov.'s Not Losing Over Education

Times Staff Writer

Late in 2004, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was enjoying a surprisingly warm romance with the Democratic-leaning education establishment. An endorsement for reelection was not out of the question.

Then, early in 2005, Schwarzenegger reinterpreted a pledge to educators -- reducing “promised” funding to grade schools and community colleges by about $3 billion.

That “broken promise” inaugurated a war between teacher unions and Schwarzenegger. And it made education-union endorsements of his opponent, Democratic state Treasurer Phil Angelides, virtually automatic.

But polls suggest that, despite this backing and despite the importance Californians place on schools, voters are not convinced they should desert Schwarzenegger for Angelides over education.

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It helps that Schwarzenegger last month signed a bill that repays diverted money to settle a lawsuit over the matter, just in time to undermine any attempt to make the governor’s alleged bad faith a campaign issue.

Rising overall state revenue helped pave the way. All told, $55.1 billion is being spent on K-12 and community college education -- more than ever before.

But union apparatchiks have neither forgiven nor forgotten. Though there are other notable differences between incumbent and challenger, it was Schwarzenegger’s diversion of education funds -- during difficult budget times -- that became a turning point for many, including Barbara Kerr, president of the California Teachers Assn.

“He went from saying, ‘I am going to pay it back’ to saying, ‘I’m not going to pay it back’ to saying, ‘I never promised to pay it back,’ ” Kerr said. “It told me you will never know who Arnold Schwarzenegger is. He changes with the political wind and you can’t trust him.”

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And yet, schools are getting about $8 billion more per year than in Schwarzenegger’s first spending plan.

“To the union leadership, the funding is never going to be enough,” said Peter G. Mehas, a Republican who recently retired as the elected Fresno County superintendent of schools. “Look at this year -- $55.1 billion, the highest that has ever been spent -- more than $11,200 per pupil. And yet the leadership of the union says it’s not enough. How much is enough?”

Estimates of how California compares on education funding with other states vary from a little above average to near the bottom, depending on the study and the method of measuring.

The increasing education budget has provided new funding for low-performing schools, teacher recruitment and retention programs, targeted class-size reduction and vocational education courses as well as higher per-pupil funding. The governor has also supported the mandatory state high school exit exam and settled Williams vs. California, the lawsuit brought by civil rights lawyers over conditions in low-achieving schools.

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In higher education, he made cuts early in his term, but also stabilized funding for the University of California system, provided money for higher costs and enrollment growth through an agreement with the higher-ed establishment. This compact allows studen fees to increase, but caps the annual rise at 10%.

For his part, Angelides would raise the ante, putting more money and multiyear funding into such efforts as preventing dropouts and closing the achievement gap between black and Latino students and their white peers. For higher education, he promises to roll back student fees, increase money for research and provide particular help to prospective teachers and those who pursue science degrees. He would pay for the programs with higher taxes on the wealthiest Californians and by closing corporate loopholes.

The governor “promised” to maintain education funding guarantees “over his dead body,” said Angelides, paraphrasing a Schwarzenegger pledge from the recall campaign that elevated him to governor.

“Time and time again, we’ve seen that you can’t trust Arnold Schwarzenegger to do the right thing by the education of our kids,” Angelides said in an interview.

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The treasurer’s long-established positions and his voting record from his tenure in the Legislature establish him as a consistent ally of teacher unions.

“Phil Angelides pointedly refers frequently to the importance of public higher education, which is relatively unique in a political campaign,” said John Travis, the Humboldt State University professor who heads the California Faculty Assn., which has endorsed Angelides. “I am impressed by his knowledge. He really understands the higher education system.”

Schwarzenegger’s record is the subject of more debate.

Early in 2004, when the state faced a multibillion-dollar deficit, education was in line for a sizable increase because of constitutional guarantees. Schwarzenegger asked for temporary relief and the education establishment proved receptive.

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A coalition that included state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell and the California Teachers Assn. accepted a $2-billion one-time reduction in education funds. Even without the $2 billion, school spending rose.

There is some dispute over the terms of the deal, but there’s also a credible consensus that the cut was supposed to be limited to $2 billion and was not supposed to harm future funding.

“I was in the room when he made the promise,” O’Connell said.

A year later, Schwarzenegger’s budget specified other uses for money that would have gone to schools under the established funding formula, Proposition 98, which became law in 1988. The diversion added up to about $3 billion lost -- or $5 billion when the original $2 billion is added in.

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“Maybe you make deals and break them in Hollywood,” said O’Connell, a Democrat, referring to Schwarzenegger’s acting career, “but you don’t when you’re governor.”

“Phil Angelides will fully fund public education every year, not just when it’s a strong economy,” he added.

Last year, Schwarzenegger also maneuvered to amend Proposition 98, so it wouldn’t lock in so much for school spending. This goal was incorporated into the unsuccessful Proposition 76, dubbed the “Live Within Our Means” initiative.

In the summer before Proposition 76 reached voters, both the state teachers association and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) negotiated with Schwarzenegger’s team over changes to Proposition 98. But the talks faltered.

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Schwarzenegger declined an interview request, but he is quoted speaking about the funding deal in “The People’s Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy,” by Times reporter Joe Mathews. In it, Schwarzenegger told Mathews that he misunderstood his team’s pledge to take no more than $2 billion from education.

“I missed that because this was more a conversation where we all sat around the table and said, ‘This is really great. I’m glad that we came to a settlement and blah blah blah,’ ” Schwarzenegger said.

A year later, he well understood matters.

“I had a choice,” Mathews quotes the governor as saying. “If we want to give education the [money] they say they are owed, we have to take [it] out of healthcare, and that means we would have to take it out of vulnerable citizens. I was not willing to do that.”

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Some critics, however, have noted that the governor has expressed no qualms over keeping another promise: repealing a car license fee that eliminated $4 billion in annual state revenue.

Mindful of SUV-driving voters, Angelides isn’t calling for a return of the car tax, but accuses Schwarzenegger of putting future grade school and community college funding -- about 40% of the state’s budget -- at risk by failing to eliminate the state’s ongoing structural deficit.

The governor’s aides counter that education hasn’t been and won’t be shortchanged. “There was never a question of whether or not education was going to be made whole,” said H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the state Department of Finance. “The issue was when.”

As it happened, “when” was after last year’s California Teachers Assn.-led campaign pummeled Schwarzenegger’s three ballot initiatives in the November special election. And after O’Connell and the state teachers association filed a lawsuit -- the one recently settled -- over the Proposition 98 money.

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Since then, the governor has apologized for the special election and pledged to work with the Legislature and return the disputed education dollars, which will be paid back over a number of years.

All of that spells trouble for Angelides, because it leaves room for too many Democrats to stray.

“I like both guys,” said Democrat Caprice Young, a former member of the Los Angeles school board who now heads the California Charter Schools Assn. “The governor has not been perfect, obviously,” but when he made the diversion, “he was looking at a pretty serious budget crisis and he’s made up for it.”

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howard.blume@latimes.com

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For exclusive Web features, including the new Political Muscle blog, go to latimes.com/californiapolitics.

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Begin text of infobox

How the candidates stack up

* On what do Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Treasurer Phil Angelides agree?

Both support charter schools and school bonds. They favor the mandatory state high school exit exam and other accountability measures as well as extra help for disadvantaged students and low-performing schools.

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* Major education accomplishments:

Schwarzenegger: Stabilized higher education funding; oversaw economy that has resulted in highest-ever funding this year for education; settled Williams vs. California, the lawsuit over substandard conditions at low-performing schools; supported school bonds; targeted new money to most needy schools.

Angelides: Through treasurer’s office, pioneered home-buying assistance for teachers who commit to low-achieving schools; established tax-free college savings program; helped expand funding opportunities for charter schools.

* The critics would say:

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Schwarzenegger: He can’t be trusted to protect education funding because he has cut it before in bad budget years -- even trying to alter permanently the school-funding minimum. And more budget trouble is looming.

Angelides: He is too beholden to teachers unions -- especially given that schools are not a governor’s only high priority -- and he would have trouble paying for promised programs.

* The pitch for changing horses:

Angelides promises to provide more money for education through higher taxes on the wealthy and by closing corporate tax loopholes. He also would propose initiatives to reduce the dropout rate and the achievement gap; increase the number of students going on to college and getting degrees; and attract, train and retain highly qualified teachers.

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Source: Times Staff Reports


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