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School plan comes amid fiscal crisis

Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- A blue-ribbon panel is poised to propose a multibillion-dollar plan for overhauling education in California just as the state has become immersed in a fiscal crisis that could make its recommendations dead on arrival.

The 15-member committee, appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, concluded after two years of study that state schools are “hobbled in red tape, riddled with inefficiencies and impossible for parents and students to understand,” according to a draft of the plan obtained by The Times.

The Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence says in its 40-page report that “California’s K-12 education system is broken. It is not close to helping each student become proficient in mastering the state’s clear curricular standards, and wide disparities persist between rich and poor, between students of color and others, between English learners and native English speakers.”

It proposes $6.1 billion in new spending and some controversial changes, including performance-based pay for teachers, special resources for students who primarily speak a language other than English and a stronger role for the elected superintendent for public instruction -- who now has little say in how school systems are managed.

The report was intended to provide a blueprint for Schwarzenegger’s next legislative initiative: a restructuring of the state’s education system. But it arrives as revenues are plummeting in the wake of a housing crisis, and lawmakers face a $10-billion deficit that experts predict will grow.

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Officials who were hoping that next year would bring major improvements now say any significant efforts costing money will have to be shelved.

“Without any added revenues, it looks like we will be holding in abeyance any bills . . . that provide for comprehensive education reform,” said Assemblyman Gene Mullin (D-San Mateo), chairman of the Education Committee.

The governor’s education secretary, David Long, hopes some reforms would be possible but is pessimistic about changes requiring significant new financing.

“There will be some things, because of the fiscal picture, that we won’t be able to do,” he said.

Although the governor has ordered state department heads to draw up plans for 10% cuts for next year, he has sought to keep alive the chance to fix a system in which fewer than half of all ninth-graders end up with a high school diploma.

“We have had a bipartisan group go out and study our education, Democrats and Republican, really the No. 1 experts in the state, that have studied this now for two years, and we know what needs to be done,” Schwarzenegger told a group of Silicon Valley executives this month. “So the question is, shouldn’t we put that plan up there and say: Bring all the stakeholders together, and let’s figure out a way of how we can do that?”

Schwarzenegger is expected to use his State of the State address in January to preview his education program. But some elements of the committee’s report are already drawing fire from the teachers’ unions and others.

Stephan Blake, the panel’s executive director, cautioned that some proposals may change before the document is finalized and released in coming weeks.

The draft proposes creation of a new funding system for students in poverty and English-learners that would cost an additional $5 billion. It recommends an expansion of preschool that would cost $1.1 billion.

Some of the expense could be defrayed by better use of existing resources, said committee member Russlynn Ali, executive director of the nonprofit Education Trust-West, which works to reduce the achievement gap between minority and non-minority students and between the poor and those who are better off.

Ali said committee members are fully aware that the report arrives at a time when the state budget is in trouble. California spends about $50 billion annually on education.

Budget issues aren’t the only potential obstacles.

Barbara Coe, head of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, said her group would strongly resist expansion of programs aimed at English-learners because that would encourage schools to take in illegal immigrant children.

“That’s not our obligation, to teach them English,” she said.

Another hot-button issue is the way teachers are paid.

Performance pay is “a non-starter that just creates a brush fire around the whole plan,” said Bob Wells, executive director of the Assn. of California School Administrators.

The draft suggests “linking compensation to performance that would directly reward teachers for, among other factors, gains in student academic achievement, additional responsibilities and demonstrated advancement of their skills and knowledge, as documented by their professional evaluations.”

But the recommendation may lose support even within the committee before the report is finalized, said Ernesto Cortes, a committee member who is director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a group that advocates for the poor.

“For me, merit pay is off the table,” Cortes said.

The powerful California Teachers Assn. has batted down past merit pay proposals and would oppose any in the future, said union spokeswoman Sharon Jackson.

“It sounds like merit pay to me,” she said. “If it is, we certainly would have a problem with it.”

The draft report recommends bonus pay for “effective teachers” in math and science, where there is a shortage of instructors, and in “schools that serve high concentrations of low-income and minority students.”

The committee also recommends a simpler way of disbursing money, reducing the number of funding categories and other existing requirements. A base amount would be set for each student, with 40% of that amount added for those from low-income families and 20% added for English-learners.

“The idea was to prune those funding categories back and streamline the process,” said committee member David Gordon, superintendent of the Sacramento County Office of Education.

Paul Mitchell, of the education advocacy group EdVoice, said a change in funding could generate opposition because it would “rob money from high-income schools with high voting populations.”

Controversy also may greet the committee’s recommendation to overhaul the governing system for state education, which the governor’s panel said is convoluted.

“Not only are local educators not effectively supported by the state, their efforts can be impeded by state operations,” the report found.

The proposal would return primary decision-making authority to local officials and reduce the state requirements that local districts must meet. The superintendent of public instruction would, starting in 2011, serve as “an independent guarantor of success throughout the system,” charged with creating and managing a network of school inspectors to hold districts accountable.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell declined to comment on the report, saying he will wait until he reads the final document.

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patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com


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