School groups rebuked Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg for suggesting that new federal teacher aid could help alleviate California's deficit problems, but the idea may not be so novel, considering Oregon officials also think that money could help offset their deficit.
Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat, has advised his school officials that they should be "smart and prudent" with their share of the federal jobs money because the state's budget shortfall has grown by another $200 million to $500 million, according to the Oregonian. The Mail Tribune quotes one superintendent as saying the new deficit "effectively erases the federal funds."
Under the bill signed by President Barack Obama last week, California is due to receive about $1.2 billion in new federal money for school districts.
California has yet to pass a budget for the year, so the state has not set its spending level for schools. Many districts have built their school-year finances on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget, which would provide K-12 schools between $2 billion and $3.5 billion less than what Democrats have proposed. Because Schwarzenegger's budget leaves schools with less money than they had last year, districts already have laid off teachers, reduced class sizes and shortened the school year.
After Steinberg's remarks appeared on Capitol Alert, Education Coalition leaders met Tuesday with Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez to convince them that the federal money should not be considered in budget talks. "That is very clearly not its intended purpose and no one needs it more than California students right now," Education Coalition spokeswoman Robin Swanson said Tuesday after the meetings.
Steinberg's remarks caused some confusion among schools and even the U.S. Department of Education because the money is not intended to allow states to reduce spending on schools. To determine this, the federal government has set guidelines that require states to maintain a certain amount of spending compared to historic levels.
Democrats probably can lower their school spending demand and still meet those guidelines. Schwarzenegger's Department of Finance says that his budget meets the guidelines -- and remember that Schwarzenegger's budget gives schools at least $2 billion less than the Democratic proposal. (We should point out that there is some debate as to whether Finance's claim is accurate, but Schwarzenegger has submitted an application to the federal government that says California will meet the guidelines.)
How the money is used has become a political hot potato because Washington wants the money to provide more classroom jobs immediately, not relieve state budget pressure.
As the Oregon and California examples suggest, there seems to be a blurry line between those two endeavors. The federal government wants to save jobs that are lost due to state budget cuts. But if states haven't yet decided where to cut or find themselves solving a new deficit, it would be difficult for them to ignore the fact that schools are getting this new federal money, so long as they meet the federal guidelines.
If the state went down this path, it would not place a line item in the budget specifying a reduction due to new federal funds. The budget could simply land on a lower education spending level than Democrats have proposed, and state leaders could attribute that to whatever they wish, be it federal jobs money, not enough taxes or a need to spend more on the state safety net. This wouldn't happen without a fight from the Education Coalition, which wants the state education funding base to remain as high as possible.
Democrats don't want to reduce their school spending proposal, but Republicans have vowed to block the taxes on which the Democrats' plan depends.
PHOTO CREDIT: A Sutter Middle School student writes down a geometry problem and its solution on Monday in Folsom. Paul Kitagaki Jr./ Sacramento Bee