School advocates prepare to fight Prop 98 suspension

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Proposition 98 guarantees that Sacramento will spend about 40 percent of the state's general fund on public schools every year; but lawmakers can suspend that guarantee in tough economic times. The state currently faces a $16 billion deficit and Governor Schwarzenegger wants to suspend Prop 98 and cut nearly $5 billion from schools next year. KPCC's Julie Small says school advocates are gearing up for a fight.

Julie Small: Former Governor Pete Wilson found it hard to suspend Proposition 98 back in the early 1990s. Mary Perry is with the non-profit education study group EdSource. She says educators and parents got to the Legislature.

Mary Perry: There were rallies all over the state. There were visits to Sacramento. There were editorials and letters to the editor, anything that got the attention and put pressure on the Legislature not to suspend.

Small: Perry says it was a different story when Governor Schwarzenegger wanted to suspend the guarantee a couple of years ago.

Perry: Leaders of the Education Coalition, the education organization in the state, agreed not to generate that kind of grassroots protest against the governor's proposal, because they had a guarantee from him and the Legislature, in law, that education would only be cut a certain amount.

Small: But education advocates accused the Governor of going back on a promise to restore school spending right away. They sued to win back $2 billion they said the state owed them, and they won. This time, right from the start, they plan to fight the governor's proposal to suspend Prop 98.

Rick Pratt: With everything we have.

Small: That's Rick Pratt with the California School Boards Association. He was part of the army that defeated the Wilson cuts years ago. Pratt says it will be easier to find foot soldiers this time.

Pratt: One thing that we're seeing now that we didn't really see so much in the '90s was the spontaneous reaction of people at the local level. All kinds of people – you know, school board members, teachers, administrators, parents. They're coming to us like never before saying, "What can we do to prevent this level of cuts?"

Small: Pratt says if the cuts happen, some school districts will increase class sizes to 40 students. Others might cancel programs. Long Beach Unified voted this week to shut down an elementary school to save money. Pratt says Californians know the long-term costs of cutting education spending.

Pratt: These cuts are going to affect kids today. You're only in 2nd grade once. You're only in 5th grade once. And if you have cuts like this, that's going to affect your performance in those grades. That's going to create learning deficiency, educational deficiencies, for the year after, and the year after that.

Small: Rick Pratt with the California School Boards Association says some kids might never recover that lost ground. Jack O'Connell, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, says the economy won't recover, either.

Jack O'Connell: We already have seen slippage in terms of California's economic productivity. That, I believe, is largely attributable to the lack of the available well skilled, well educated, analytical work force that we really need.

Small: O'Connell is on a tour of California to oppose the governor's proposed education cuts. He's assembled a coalition of groups to join him at news conferences in Los Angeles, San Diego. and Oakland to spread the word.

O'Connell: The governor's proposal means $800 less per student in the state of California than that which we're entitled to. So we know that we need to protect public education so that we can make an investment in the future.

Small: Ed Source's Mary Perry recalls that pitch sounds a lot like the one that defeated Pete Wilson's proposed education cuts more than a decade ago.

Perry: That California schools already are underfunded compared to a lot of the rest of the country and are struggling to get better. And that education is an investment in the state's future, and one that needs to be protected.

Small: "Education Week," the newspaper that covers education issues, says California now spends $2,000 less on each student than the national average. California used to rank 43rd in the nation in per-pupil spending. It's down to 46th, and with budget cuts ahead, it could go down even more.