The Budget Rorschach Test

June 9, 2008 · Filed Under CA Budget, Education, The Governor · Comments Off 

For a statehouse reporter covering the annual budget dance, there's nothing like the ink blot that is public school funding. Look at it one way and it looks like an area of state government that every year gets more and more money. Look at it another way and it looks like something that's getting scrimped on more years than not.

Just like Hermann Rorschach's famous blots, the debate over education funding tests your own beliefs about how best to educate California's kids, and what we ought to be spending.

The blots were back on display this morning, as education advocates renewed their criticism of Governor Schwarzenegger's budget plan. In a news conference in Sacramento, representatives of teachers, school administrators, and parents said the governor's plan unfairly cuts $4.3 billion from K-12 education and community colleges.

The governor's spokesman quickly fired back in an email, arguing that even in the face of a projected $15 billion shortfall Schwarzenegger is actually proposing more, not less, money for schools... to the tune of $200 million more.

What's a reporter to do?

One of the problems in these discussions is that one side will often be talking talking apples, the other oranges.

There's actually agreement when the same fruit is laid on the table. The governor's staff and the education advocates both agree that in 2007-08, public schools received $56.6 billion in funding guaranteed by the voter-approved constitutional amendement, Proposition 98. In the governor's proposed 2008-09 plan, schools would receive $56.8 billion in Prop 98-guaranteed funds.

So yes, that's actually about a $200 million increase.

But it's also true that schools actually received $57.7 billion this year, not $56.6 billion. That's $1.1 billion more than was required by the mind-numbingly complex formula enshrined in Prop 98.

While it helped pay for programs that are ongoing, much of that $1.1 billion was one-time in nature. Hence, the governor didn't include it in his new budget plan. And hence, the education community sees this as a budget cut... which it certainly seems to be.

There's another complicated dispute over an additional $3.1 billion the education community says is owed for a cost of living allowance (COLA) for K-12 schools. The governor is not recommending any COLA.

Is this a cut in school funding? It depends on whether you're measuring actual expenditures or expected expenditures.

There's much, much more. Too much, in fact. School advocates distributed a list this morning of things that are on course to be slashed under the governor's budget, including popular programs like smaller class sizes for grades K-3. Meantime, legislative Democrats have promised $2-3 million more for education than Schwarzenegger's May budget plan.

Legislators, the governor, and education advocates are all trying to win the PR war because the voters continually say education should be a government funding priority. And each wants to make it clear that the facts are on their side.

But the facts aren't the problem. The problem is the context in which those facts are discussed.

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