No on Proposition 1B

Proposition 1B is intended to restore $9.3 billion in “lost” funding that public schools and community colleges normally would have received under Proposition 98, money they haven’t received recently and won’t for a couple of years more because of the dismal fiscal outlook. The problem is how much more it might do.

The money, to be paid over an estimated six years starting in 2011, could force the state to increase its funding guarantees to schools in the long-term future, and because public education is the single biggest item in the state budget, higher guarantees have the potential to become budget-busting expenditure locks. The proposition threatens to ratchet up the autopilot budgeting that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says he’s trying to stop.

All of this arises from obscure aspects of school funding that are little understood by anyone beyond experts. Proposition 98, passed in 1988, gives public schools and community colleges a minimum of 40% of the state budget, but it can be suspended under certain circumstances. A lack of clarity in the measure, however, has left an unresolved conflict over the state’s financial obligation to schools in years following such suspensions. Proposition 1B, insteadof resolving the legal ambiguity in Proposition 98, could worsen its effects by increasing that financial obligation no matter how little money is in the state budget.

The Times called for a no vote on Proposition 98, not because we don’t favor the highest possible funding for schools but because the decisions about that funding must depend on the revenue available and the current needs of the schools. If public school enrollment were to drop significantly but the number of university-age students swelled, there would be no flexibility to put the money where it is most needed because four-year colleges are not covered by Proposition 98. Proposition 1B exacerbates the most problematic aspects of Proposition 98.

Proposition 1B isn’t necessary for the rest of the budget stabilization package to work as intended. Nor does its failure prevent the Legislature from giving as much money as possible to schools -- something it should do anyway. But the measure’s main reason for being on the ballot is that it gives the powerful California Teachers Assn. and other school unions reason to support the overall package, or at least not campaign too heavily against the spending caps in Proposition 1A; 1B cannot take effect if 1A fails. That’s not a good enough reason to pass a measure that conceals a potential time bomb. The Times urges a no vote on Proposition 1B.

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