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Funding school reforms may tax governor

The argument has raged for decades: Democrats contend that schools need more money in order to teach better. No, Republicans counter, the schools must reform. Now there’s a debate winner.

Both are correct, of course. But it has taken a $3 million pile of research to reach that nonpartisan conclusion.

Results of the massive research project -- requested by the legislative leaders, the governor and the state superintendent of public instruction, and funded by foundations -- will be released this week. The findings have been a closely guarded secret.

The 1,700-page report “will glaze over anybody’s eyes,” says one person who has read it. “This is an enormous volume of work.” But he and others who have scanned the 23 separate studies say the central finding is simple:

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Money alone cannot fix California’s public elementary and high schools. It will require major reforms, some controversial. And those reforms, indeed, will cost billions more annually.

Think in terms of boosting school funding by maybe 25%, says one source, who has been sworn to secrecy. “But just rolling more money into the current system is not going to get results.”

In the present fiscal year, California is spending $49 billion on K-12 schools -- $37 billion from the state general fund, $12 billion from local property taxes. To put that in perspective, the general fund amounts to roughly $102 billion; the total state budget, including special funds, $132 billion.

And what reforms would the additional money buy? A list of options will be released with the report Wednesday and Thursday. Don’t expect much new thinking, just more credibility for old, controversial notions that haven’t been able to survive political partisanship, anti-tax zealots and union biases.

There’ll be suggestions that more funds be spent on poor-performing and low-wealth schools. That financial incentives be available to recruit teachers for hard-to-fill positions, such as science instructor. That principals be given more free rein to fire bad teachers and pay the best ones better. That the maze of categorical programs be blown up and restructured. That the whole school system be more open to scrutiny -- more transparent -- and thus more accountable to the public.

“It will encourage all of us to think about education reform in a holistic way,” says Ted Mitchell, former president of Occidental College and currently chairman of the Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence, one of the project’s requesters.

“California’s system of education is built a lot like the Winchester Mystery House. There’s a room added here and there, with little connectivity. The hallways are cluttered up and go nowhere.”

Separately and coincidentally, a business lobby today will release a survey of private executives’ views on public education. Their collective opinion is not very high. The business execs gave California’s K-12 schools a D grade.

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But the business leaders’ thinking on one point meshes snugly with that of the research project’s conclusion. These 1,342 execs -- with Republicans outnumbering Democrats 3 to 2 -- indicated a willingness to raise taxes if the new money were spent on reforms.

A majority, 53%, agreed with this statement: “We need both more funding and more accountability to improve our schools. While there may be some waste in our schools, we cannot improve [them] unless we invest more resources tied to proven reforms....”

The “reforms” the business types preferred were anything that would get the students more work-ready: “essential skills such as ... reading, writing and math, as well as communications skills, [personal] responsibility and work ethic.” Get the kids talking and writing in simple, declarative sentences, showing up on time and taking pride in their work.

But isn’t it the parents’ duty to instill their children with personal responsibility and a strong work ethnic?

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There’s a good argument for that, acknowledges Loren Kaye, president of the California Foundation for Commerce and Education, which commissioned the poll. “But somebody has to teach these work skills because the kids aren’t entering the job market with them.”

The “major purpose” of high school, the business group asserted, is teaching students to be “productive workers.” That rates higher than preparing them for college.

In business’ view, the schools are producing a poor product. And, as taxpayers, the execs are willing to invest more to improve the product if the outlay makes sense -- such as rewarding the best teachers and firing the worst. Just as they do in their businesses.

“I don’t want to pit teacher against teacher at the same school,” responds Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, repeating the unions’ argument against “merit” pay. “I want teachers working together collaboratively.”

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But he agrees with providing “incentive” pay for teachers willing to work at “more challenging schools.”

And he’s a strong advocate of “character education” that teaches “honesty, integrity and showing up to work.”

This will be a big week in state government for public education.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday will host a “summit” in Torrance on “career tech” -- what we used to call vocational ed. These days, it’s more about computers than carpentry. It’s the governor’s pet education reform. He has poured roughly $100 million into it so far and has proposed another $52 million for next year’s budget.

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“The truth is, only about 25% of high school students ever are going to go get a college degree,” says Scott Himelstein, the governor’s chief education advisor. “We need to give the students more options.”

That means curriculum reform. And that, in turn, will require more money. Higher taxes. The long-awaited research report should make that harder to deny, even for anti-tax Schwarzenegger.

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George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.

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