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California educational community awaits federal stimulus funds

For California education, the topsy-turvy world of state and federal budgeting has been feast or famine – and mostly famine.
But that may be about to change.

Thus far, the precise numbers are a moving target, although by any yardstick the infusion of money into California education is likely to be above $11 billion, according to the National Education Association, and some estimates put the figure higher. The money, roughly half of the $22 billion in federal emergency cash that the state is expected to get, flows from the $100 billion in education funding destined for some 14,000 school districts in the 50 states.

About $9.6 billion of the California  funding is slated to go to K-12 and post-secondary education through 2010.

For California schools, the sudden likelihood of cash is a sharp departure from what was expected. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed a $5 billion cut to schools, a move that infuriated teachers, administrators, parental groups and others. The proposed reduction was part of the administration’s attempt to cover a $42 billion budget shortage.

But the Legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal adviser, Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor, questioned the governor’s proposal for deep, across the board cuts. Rather, Taylor said, the Legislature should make what he described as carefully considered cuts.

“Rather than cutting districts’ most flexible source of funding, we recommend that the Legislature make targeted spending reductions,” Taylor wrote in a summary of education funding recommendations. Because the level of education savings that the state will need to achieve in 2009–10 is unknown at this time, we (should) develop a three–tiered approach to achieving Proposition 98 savings.” Those three steps, or tiers, include cuts that are gradually ratcheted up, taking effect as they are needed.

“Under each tier, we make targeted reductions to specific K–14 categorical programs or block grants. Tier 1 reductions would provide this first step of savings with little, if any, programmatic effect. In contrast, Tier 3 reductions would have relatively significant programmatic effects on schools. Taken together, the tiers are intended to give the Legislature many options for achieving budget–year solutions,” Taylor wrote.

He also suggested that the Legislature “adopt a more strategic approach that provides districts with additional flexibility but also simplifies, streamlines, and improves the existing system. Specifically, we recommend consolidating 42 existing K–12 categorical programs into three large block grants focused on instructional support, at–risk students, and special education students. The three block grants would consolidate more than $10 billion, or roughly two–thirds, of all state categorical funding for K–12 education. For CCC, we recommend consolidating eight programs into two block grants focused on student success and faculty support. These block grants would consolidate $257 million, or roughly one–third, of all state categorical funding for community colleges. Under a block grant approach, districts would have much more flexibility to determine how best to meet local needs, but the state still would preserve important education priorities.”

Virtually every piece of the strapped state budget has been affected by looming belt-tightening, and education is no exception. State funding for the University of California, for example, fell about $800 million below what was originally planned, tuition increases at UC averaged 7 percent and enrollment has been cut on order to save money.

State Schools Superintendent Jack O’Connell believes that the federal stimulus package is critical for California educational system.
“School construction, renovation, and repair funds will put people to work right away in California,” O’Connell said in a written statement. “As a result of the state’s dire fiscal situation, 886 already approved school construction, renovation, and repair projects are on hold. Funding from the stimulus package would jump-start these programs. Moreover, school facilities projects yield benefits beyond the specific school projects; they contribute to workforce development, increase green technology, and benefit many communities.”

Of the $100 billion in the national education package, just over half – about $54 billion – will go to prevent school layoffs and other disruptions in public sector employment.

There is money, about $5 billion, that will go to school districts that reduce the achievement gap between poor and affluent students. Although the billions of dollars sound impressive, they fall short of eliminating the nationwide fiscal deficit for education, which stands at about $132 billion.

In California, O’Connell described the school districts’ plight as “precarious” in his State of Education in 2009 address.

“Beyond the immediate crisis and even more alarming to me is the long-term future of our common education system. If we continue down the road we are on, our public schools and our state itself face certain, perhaps irreparable, damage,” he said.

“Downturns like this hit the most vulnerable among us the hardest,” O’Connell said. “Sadly this comes after a long-term California focus on closing achievement gaps is now just starting to show modest progress. Let me be crystal clear, all of our progress as a high-expectation state is at-risk unless we commit ourselves now to being innovative, flexible, and focused as never before. It is time for us to prioritize and to focus on things we know are working to close the achievement gap and help all students succeed.” .

O’Connell, noting the problem of rising tuition, has urged college students to take advantage of the Cal Grant program, which provides up to $9,700 annually to pay for college or career-technical programs. The deadline this year is March 2.


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