Editorial: Anew era in education funding

The complex, multiyear $5.7 billion settlement of the school financing dispute involving the governor and the state teachers’ lobby, announced Wednesday by the Schwarzenegger administration, drastically changes the playing field for California politics and education.

The agreement brings wide-ranging immediate results. The California Teachers Association lawsuit, which charged Gov. Schwarzenegger with shortchanging the schools, is expected to be taken off the table, and CTA spokespersons were careful last week not to criticize the governor.

Resolution of the contentious withholding of some $2.9 billion of Proposition 98 school funding from the 2004-05 budget also defuses one of the most-utilized issues of Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Democratic opponents. Democratic candidates Phil Angelides and Steve Westly will find it considerably more difficult to accuse the governor of failing to fully fund education now that even more money than the disputed $2.9 billion is flowing to the schools.

If you count the $2 billion from the current school budget that is actually being paid next year, California’s school spending has ballooned from $47 billion in 2004-05 to $57 billion for 2006-07. This signals a new period of unprecedented spending for students.

In 2004, California was in a financial crisis, wracked with a staggering deficit caused by a period of irresponsible overspending just prior to a sharp economic downturn. Gov. Schwarzenegger had to make some extremely tough choices, and no choice brought him more animosity than delaying the mandated education funding.

There is no doubt that high-quality education is an essential element in creating a good life for California citizens. But there will always be other legitimate public needs competing for a limited supply of funds, including highways, public transit, health care, public safety, water supply, help for the mostneedy and more.

In hindsight, the governor appears to have been largely correct to stand firm on his fiscal plan. And now, as a recovering economy is refilling state coffers beyond the most optimistic expectations, Schwarzenegger is not only making good on his promise to repay the withheld education funding, he is even allocating schools more than the budget requirements of Prop. 98 — some $800 million more for the new year than what he proposed in January.

For the first time in recent memory, California educators will be hard-pressed to argue that the public schools do not get sufficient funding to properly educate every one of California’s students. It will be intriguing in coming years to observe how closely the increases in school funding correlate to improved learning results for even the hardest-to-teach students.

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