Community Columns

SCOTT SIEGEL: Is California's last-minute spending plan any good?

(Lisa Benson/Washington Post Writers Group)
(Lisa Benson/Washington Post Writers Group)

At their core, budgets are a statement about priorities. In that light, Gov. Jerry Brown's initial proposal back in January for the 2011-2012 state budget was welcome news to educators. The governor declared that K-12 education was his top priority and that K-12 education had already born a disproportionate share of the budget cuts over the past few years. At that time, the governor's budget featured flat funding for education — a feat he was able to accomplish in the face of a $26 billion deficit by including a $2.1 billion deferral. (A deferral is a budgeting gimmick in which schools are allowed to spend money this year that they will receive from the state next year.)

What a difference six months makes. The budget that was just passed includes $10.6 billion of anticipated additional revenue compared to January's budget proposal. While some of this growth is suspect, the majority of it appears realistic. And how did the governor's "top priority" fare in light of this revenue growth? K-12 schools will still be flat funded and have a $2.1 billion deferral. But they will also face the specter of midyear cuts should the optimistic revenue forecasts fall short.

Simply put, public schools will not benefit in any way from $10.6 billion in revenue growth. On the contrary, due to the possible midyear cuts, schools actually fared worse with the budget that was passed than with the budget the governor proposed. This uncertainty makes it difficult for school districts to create realistic budgets.

If budgets are a statement about priorities, then the governor and the state Legislature have made it clear that public education is not important.

Proposition 98 was passed to guarantee a minimum level of school funding. The budget for next year ignores Proposition 98 and funds schools billions lower than they are entitled under the guarantee.

Proposition 98 can be suspended with a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. A responsible government would have taken the suspension vote. The current Legislature did not. They simply ignored the law and the will of the voters.

To make matters worse, the Legislature sent a budget to the governor that attempts to prevent school districts from making necessary budget cuts and removes important fiscal oversight mechanisms.

These steps came at a time when many school districts are teetering on the edge of insolvency. Apparently, appeasing special interest groups was more important than financial responsibility.

The Democrats will blame the Republicans and the Republicans will blame the Democrats for this fiasco. The fault lies with both sides. They were unable to work together to create a budget that supports their stated priorities. They were unable to construct a budget that meets voter-approved legal requirements. They were unable to resist the narrow and selfish interests of a few of their constituencies.

In short, this budget represents a colossal failure on both sides of the aisle and in the governor's office to govern. And in the end, our state and our students lose.

Siegel is superintendent of the Ceres Unified School District.

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