Sunday, January 06, 2008


by Juliet Williams Associated Press Writer | from the San Jose Mercury News

January 6, 2008SACRAMENTO—The mood was buoyant just a few months ago as some of the state's best minds in education gathered to debate what school reforms to make in 2008, a year Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had anointed California's "Year of Education."

Since then, much of the enthusiasm has fizzled as the state's fiscal outlook has deteriorated.

Many of those same education advocates now fear reforms will be delayed—or worse.

Schwarzenegger will release his proposed budget for the 2008-09 fiscal year this week, providing the first detailed look at how he plans to close a deficit estimated at $14 billion over the next year-and-a-half.

Educators are concerned that the state's deepening fiscal crisis will force cuts to public schools.

Even before the deficit emerged, some education leaders were playing down expectations for the "Year of Education." They cautioned that it would be impossible to overhaul a system that governs nearly 10,000 schools and 6.3 million students in just one year.

At the October education forum, Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero said she was inclined to hang another tag on 2008: The "Year of Magical Thinking" or perhaps the "Year of Living Dangerously."

"We should not be so naive or really, so grandiose, as to think this will be the year we accomplish education reform," Romero, D-Los Angeles, told a crowd of educators at the forum hosted by Palo Alto-based EdSource, a nonpartisan group that studies public education.

Now, she appears to be right.

Schwarzenegger told education advocates in November that his "Year of Education" is essentially off.

The governor's backtracking was good news for some, said Scott Plotkin, executive director of the California School Boards Association.

He said school officials have been inundated with reforms and program changes in the last decade and many feared further tinkering.

"The one consistent complaint I hear from educators all the time is that they're never given enough time or resources to focus efforts and sustain those programs without the next gubernatorial administration coming in with another bright idea of how to fix the schools," Plotkin said.

Even so, he and others said it would be a lost opportunity if Schwarzenegger's administration and Democrats don't use the year to start talking about how to improve California schools.

Its students score below the national average on nearly every measure—reading, writing, math and science—on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation's report card. More than half of California students attend schools that receive federal poverty funding.

"The tragedy of our cyclical fiscal condition in our state is that every time people start to get serious about wanting to make real improvements in public education, the circumstances of any given year prevent it from happening," said Kevin Gordon, president of School Innovations and Advocacy, a Sacramento education lobbying firm.

The National Center for Education Statistics and other groups consistently rank California below the national average in per-pupil spending on education. In 2004-05, the last year for which national figures were available, California spent about $8,000 per pupil, 33rd among the states. It has an average of 1 teacher per 20 students, compared with a national average of 1 to 15, according to the center.

A report commissioned by the state's legislative leaders last year concluded that California needs to invest up to $25 billion more a year in education. A panel appointed by Schwarzenegger said it would cost the state $6 billion to $8 billion more just to fix its convoluted financing structure, which includes a complex system of mandates and doesn't always send funding to the most needy students.

Gordon said the state needs a long-term plan that would dramatically rewrite its programs and financing structure, which is based on volatile state revenues.

A philosophical disagreement remains over whether more money is the answer to the problems that have plagued California's public schools.

Business leaders who advise Schwarzenegger say failing schools need to be held accountable first. They want Schwarzenegger, through his education secretary, David Long, to use the tools of the federal No Child Left Behind Act to punish schools with large numbers of failing students.

Many of those schools are in high-poverty neighborhoods and have a high proportion of black and Hispanic students.

Schwarzenegger, however, will need at least some support from the education lobby, which is already threatening a major fight if he proposes cuts to the current $67 billion in education spending when he releases his 2008-09 budget this week.

The California Teachers Association spent more than $50 million to defeat Schwarzenegger's slate of ballot measures in 2005, including a proposal to reduce teacher tenure.

The first test of his ability to broker a deal is expected to come within days, with the state's plan to deal with 98 school districts that are facing sanctions for the first time under federal law.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, a Democrat, wants the Department of Education to take control of the worst-performing districts. Administration officials want Long's office to be in charge.

Ultimately, the Schwarzenegger-appointed state Board of Education will decide.

Chris Bertelli, a spokesman for Long, said Schwarzenegger still considers improving student achievement a priority, despite the state's budget problems. The governor will include some recommendations in his State of the State address Tuesday, Bertelli said.

With expectations dramatically reduced for 2008, some education leaders are rethinking their strategy to keep the education debate on the negotiating table.

"Just because we are in a fiscal crisis doesn't mean that we don't need to have that conversation," said Plotkin, of the school boards association. "We can't keep living in this feast-or-famine approach to schools."

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