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The Governor Can't Fool Everyone All the Time

March 18, 2010

Sometimes, a public official makes a statement that’s so obviously disconnected from reality that you almost want to laugh – except that laughing might be too painful.

Herb K. Schultz – Senior Advisor to Governor Schwarzenegger and Director of the California Recovery Task Force – hit the bull’s eye in this regard on March 15, in a letter to the federal Department of Education regarding California’s “maintenance-of effort” under State Fiscal Stabilization Fund requirements.  Schultz insisted that California was meeting the federal requirements, and criticized several school districts and stakeholder groups who have warned the feds that actually, Governor Schwarzenegger was not meeting “maintenance of effort” requirements because of deferrals of payments to school districts, and other budgetary hocus pocus.

Schultz said “I am disheartened that anyone would try to stand in the way of securing nearly a half a billion dollars in critical funding for our education system during these difficult economic times.”

So says the man who works for the administration that has cut billions of dollars in critical funding for K-12 education – and has done so again, and again in many multiples of one half of a billion dollars.  It started the day the Governor took office in 2003.  In a decree that amounted to playing to the grandstand (but made very little financial sense), he rescinded more than $4 billion in state vehicle registration fees – some 40 percent of which would have continued annually to fund “our education system.”

Multiply those billions times the seven years that the Governor has been in office, and you’ve got a total that would represent significant funding for “our education system”.

During the past few years, the Governor has piled on cut after cut, reducing per-pupil funding to the point that California now ranks at or near the bottom of the 50 states in terms of money spent per student.  There were out-and-out reductions, there were deferrals, and so on. When the Obama Administration came in last year, providing federal stimulus dollars to school districts, state support was typically decreased by a corresponding amount. The Governor also proposed taking five days off the school year -- all the while insisting that students must meet the state’s ambitious academic standards.

The Governor’s actions led to 16,000 K-12 educators being laid off last year. Another 21,900 pink slips went out earlier this month.

It’s not a record to be proud of. Instead, the Governor likes to talk about his tireless pursuit of federal Race to the Top funds.  He pushed hard for legislation at the last minute, and it passed. Over and over again, he issued statements about the hundreds of millions of dollars that are at stake. (Never mind the billions that he himself had taken out of K-12 funding.)

But that strategy fizzled last month, when the federal Department of Education awarded no funds to California under the first round of Race to the Top.

Truth be told, there was always more enthusiasm for Race to the Top in Sacramento than there was “down in the trenches,” among school district superintendents and school boards.  As they sized up the RTTT program, and calculated the amount of administrative time and paperwork they’d have to dedicate to RTTT’s considerable accountability requirements, and compared the cost of those measures to the amount of (one-time) money they’d actually receive . . . the lack of enthusiasm for RTTT became palpable. In the end, less than half of the roughly 1,000 local education agencies in California signed the RTTT Memorandum of Understanding.  And if you hold an off-the-record conversation with some of the districts that did sign on, you’d find that many of them were planning to quietly exit the program rather than complete all of RTTT’s requirements – they just didn’t want to be seen as refusing to even try for the funds.

Skepticism about RTTT comes from both parties – there were districts in Republican strongholds like San Diego County and Placer County that decided not to sign on, as well as districts in communities where Democrats hold a virtual monopoly on public offices.  Diane Lenning, a Republican seeking the office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI), criticized the state’s gambit for RTTT funding as “a last minute fix,”  Democrats Larry Aceves and Tom Torlakson, who are also seeking to become the next SPI, stressed their misgivings about California’s RTTT legislative package as well.

Now…we know educators welcome honest and forthright conversations, debates and disagreements on budget priorities; they have learned to live with the fact that one person’s ego and obsession with “no tax increase” slogans have trumped the well being and learning of millions of students; they may even tolerate some comparing of prisons and incarcerations with the basic and fundamental right to a publicly funded education.  But, lectures about standing in the way of securing funding for our education system? - - Oh please!!!