Major education report hits Capitol with a thud

It was supposed to the blueprint for the governor's Year of Education Reform. Instead, it has become a metaphor for the fleeting nature of political promises and the state's hummingbird-like focus when it comes to major policy overhauls.

The once much-anticipated report from the Governor's Committee of Education Excellence was released Friday with a resounding shrug of the shoulders, and it could become the latest in a long line of little-noticed and little-covered policy reports commissioned by the governor's office.

Schwarzenegger said he has directed his education secretary, Dave Long, "to work with committee members to hold meetings and town halls across the state to build consensus for reform," not exactly a fast track for sweeping legislation.

Schwarzenegger put education on the back burner in 2007, opting to focus on a comprehensive plan to overhaul the state's health care system. That plan died in the Senate earlier this year amid a sea of bad economic news. Now, the state's sputtering economy is doing to the Year of Education what it did to the Year of Health Care – stopping it dead in its tracks.

Schwarzenegger has proposed 10 percent cuts across the board to help bring the state's finances under control. Schwarzenegger has called for suspending the school's funding guaranteed under Proposition 98 and trimming $4.8 billion that schools would otherwise be scheduled to receive. His proposed education budget actually reduces education spending by more than $1 billion from the last budget year.

The governor's proposal has mobilized members of the Education Coalition, which consists of nine major education organizations including the state's largest teachers unions and the PTA.

"It's difficult to talk about reform when you're blowing a $5 billion hole in school funding," says coalition spokeswoman Robin Swanson. "These cuts are very serious. About 20,000 pink slips just went out to teachers and other school employees. We're focused on trying to protect Proposition 98 funding, first and foremost."

The report makes a nod to the state's lean financial times, but attempts to use them as justification for making wholesale changes now. "The traditional Capitol routine is to gridlock in lean times and add programs without re-examining the base in rich times. We are rarely given the opportunity to look at the entire system as a whole or its future in the long term."

The report makes clear that the recommendations reached by the panel should be taken wholesale, and not implemented piecemeal.

"Taken together, this systematic overhaul will reduce the achievement gap and create a constantly escalating cycle of continuous improvement in our education system. Therefore, it is essential that the proposed reforms be considered as a coherent, comprehensive package," the report's summary states. "Singling out and implementing individual recommendations on their own could make the current, intolerable situation even worse."

To say that now seems unlikely would be an understatement.
This study comes on the heels of a comprehensive series of 23 studies that looked at the way the state funds education. Those 1,700 pages worth of studies found gross inefficiencies in the state's education finance system, and they call for structural reforms to the fractious system of school funding. The studies also found California schools are woefully underfunded, with some calling for hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding.

The study released Friday was also critical of the state's funding system. "The current system: is the most complex in the country, lacking an underlying rationale and transparency; is inequitable, treating similar districts differently and not recognizing the different needs of students; is inefficient in its use of resources; creates bad incentives; is not predictable or stable; and is inadequate, especially for disadvantaged students."

In a statement Friday, the governor agreed. "Today with our formula-driven, feast-or-famine budget cycle, we spend every dime we get in the good years and have to make deep cuts when revenues go flat like right now. All of this anxiety and all this uncertainty could be a thing of the past if our budget system were more dependable, predictable and stable. That's why I am working so hard right now on true budget reform."

The committee urges leaders to restructure the state's education funding system and to "improve the stability of Proposition 98" funding, which was passed by California voters in 1988. But the committee was careful not to attack Proposition 98 directly.

"The instability and unpredictability of funding is caused by several factors, including the Proposition 98 funding formulas. While Proposition 98 may be an imperfect way of determining funding for schools, at this time the Committee recommends only that technical changes to Proposition 98 be made to improve the predictability of the annual Proposition 98 calculation and the stability of funding over time that results from this funding mechanism."
Among the other policy changes recommended by the committee are to make the secretary of education position a Cabinet-level job, and to give the secretary "primary authority over the operations of the public education system."

The committee proposes stripping the state Board of Education from its statutory power, making it "strictly advisory in nature," and transforming the position of state superintendent to focus on school's compliance with federal and state accountability standards.

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