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State could use federal school funding to help close budget gap

The federal government recently handed $1.2 billion to California schools to help save teachers’ jobs. But education advocates fear that state legislators will use the funds to shrink California’s $19.1-billion deficit instead.

That is not what President Obama and congressional Democrats intended. The money is meant to supplement school funding — already set in every other state — so laid-off teachers can be rehired and others’ jobs saved.

But California is 50 days into the new fiscal year without a budget, and it is unclear how much money the state will devote to schools.

State Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D- Sacramento) and Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D- Los Angeles) have proposed suspending the formula that guarantees minimum school funding in California. Knowing the federal money is coming, they could subtract up to $1.2 billion from whatever sum they decide schools need.

Steinberg suggested such a maneuver earlier in the week, although he backed away slightly Wednesday, a day after meeting with enraged education groups whose leaders huddled with him and Pérez to express their concerns.

“This is federal money dedicated to restoring jobs in schools and improving education for students,” said Robin Swanson, a spokeswoman for the 2.5-million-member Education Coalition, which includes teachers, parents and school officials. “This isn’t a piggy bank for lawmakers to raid.”

Steinberg and Pérez have suggested that schools receive $52 billion in state funds — a significant portion of which pays for teachers.

Nathan Barankin, a Steinberg spokesman, said it’s premature to assume anything about education funding. And he noted that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s May budget proposal funded schools at billions of dollars below what Democrats have proposed.

Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said the issue of federal funding had not arisen in budget talks, but it “could be what we end up discussing.”

Such talk has drawn the attention of U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, one of the biggest boosters of the federal schools money. Boxer issued a terse statement this week reiterating, “This funding can only be used to save education jobs that serve our children in public schools — and nothing else.”

shane.goldmacher@latimes.com


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