Californians didn't need the recent report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education to alert them to the school crisis in their state. Since at least mid-1982, educators and others have been warning them that the shrinking proportion of public funds spent for schools and colleges and continued toleration of flabby public-school curriculums are eating away at one of the nation's best educational infrastructures.
In November state Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig unseated 12 -year incumbent Wilson Riles with a ''back to basics'' campaign. Mr. Honig's unexpected victory was not the first indication of dissatisfaction with state education policies. While private-school enrollment has been declining nationwide, it is rising in California - with most of the new enrollment in basics-and-discipline-oriented fundamentalist Christian schools.
Also, responding to mounting criticism of standards for high school graduation, a coalition of education organizations last August asked the state Board of Education to develop a minimum standard and press local school boards to adopt it.
When Proposition 13 and its property-tax limit was passed in 1978, much of the burden for financing local public schools was transferred to the state. A large surplus enabled Sacramento to carry that burden with no strain for two years; but inflation, recession, and a state budget deficit burst the bubble after 1981.
From kindergarten to graduate school, California students are caught between education imperatives and fiscal demands. But there is another element in the decline - public support. The state once was consistently in the top 10 in terms of school financing; but for the 1982-83 school year it was at the bottom of the list, $350 under the national average of $2,690 in annual per-pupil expenditure.
For years, the nine-campus University of California, the large California state-universities system, and the community-based two-year colleges have served as national models for making higher education available, virtually free, for all. Now fees are rising, faculty and staffs are being cut, and state appropriations are falling short of commitments.
On May 5 the Board of Regents of the University of California asked the state Legislature to disapprove proposed cuts in the university's budget. They did so at the urging of retiring UC president David S. Saxon, who told the regents May 2:
''We are faced with the possibility of cuts so substantial that they would force us to reduce enrollments and programs significantly and . . . put at risk the thoroughly documented excellence of the university's programs.''
He said the budget cuts proposed by Republican Gov. George Deukmejian ''constitute a decision about whether the University of California is going to remain the finest public university in the world or . . . will be permitted to slip into the second rank.''
Governor Deukmejian, seeking to avoid whopping budget deficits in the current fiscal year and the next one, has proposed cutting the UC fiscal 1984 budget by some $39 million. Dr. Saxon points out that since 1978 the UC budget has been subjected to $110 million in permanent budget cuts.
Meanwhile, Democratic and Republican legislators, as well as Superintendent of Schools Honig, have introduced their school-reform and financial-aid packages. They have many similarities, but the chief difference among them is that Republicans say they can improve the public-school system without raising taxes.
Democrats disagree. This is the argument that ended in a standoff in the 1982 legislative session and left the schools holding a nearly empty bag.
Chief features of three comprehensive education proposals introduced so far include:
1. A longer school year - at least five days more than the 175 now required (national average: 178).
2. Higher teacher pay, but more power for school boards to discipline or fire teachers.
3. Statewide competency testing of pupils and tougher graduation requirements.
4. Broader disciplinary power over students for school administrators.
Deukmejian and Assembly Republicans would increase public-school aid by $400 million in fiscal 1984. The Assembly members would also guarantee that 15 percent of state revenues go to education after 1984.
Honig's proposal, which has substantial bipartisan support in the Legislature , would increase the school budget by $974 million in 1983-84 and by $4 billion over the next four years.
Both Honig's proposal and one put forward by Democratic state Sen. Gary Hart (no relation to the US senator from Colorado) would require three years of English, three years of social studies, two years of math, two years of science, one year of fine arts, and one year of computer training for a high school diploma.
Senator Hart's bill would authorize the voting of local education taxes - an apparent attempt to get around Proposition 13's limitations. Under that law, school districts can increase local property-tax assessment for education if two-thirds of the voters approve. So far, very few communities have been able to muster the required vote.
Honig and the Democrats want to vote new state taxes - principally on liquor, cigarettes, and oil production - to pay for increased school spending. Republicans seem to be hoping for a speedup in the economic recovery. So far, according to State Controller Ken Cory, revenues continue to fall below the amount anticipated in the current budget.
The Commission on State Finance has forecast that even if a 1 percent state sales-tax increase is triggered in February 1984, as provided by legislation late in 1982, the fiscal 1984 budget (July 1, 1983, through June 30, 1984) will contain a $1.2 billion deficit.