A school-funds feud, and why it matters

One hesitates to use prize-fight metaphors to describe education. But the situation here in California - recognized as a leader in the nation's education-reform movement - fits the analogy. In one corner, Republican Gov. George Deukmejian. Back in January, his proposed budget allowed only a modest cost-of-living increase for public elementary and secondary schools. Pleading lack of resources, he also noted that new money had already been poured into schools - without much proof of results.

In the other corner, the head of the state's education department, Superintendent Bill Honig. Learning of the budget, he blasted the governor for offering the schools a paltry $124 million - instead of the $1 billion he said was needed just for basic operating costs in a system that is growing by 100,000 students each year.

The governor was not pleased. He branded the superintendent - who in California is not appointed by the governor but elected independently - an ``incompetent whiner.'' The superintendent shot back with a densely printed 12-page bulletin, thick with statistics, to prove that the reforms prompted by a 1983 education reform bill were indeed working.

So the governor, in a weekend radio speech several weeks ago, responded that the state needed a ``thorough'' review of public-school management - to be sure that funds were being ``spent wisely and not wasted.'' Mr. Honig accused him of ``school bashing'' and of carrying on a ``personal vendetta.'' (Footnote: it is widely rumored that Honig is gearing up for a Democratic run for governor in 1990, a rumor the superintendent denies.)

Then, on May 19, the tiff took another turn. Governor Deukmejian announced that the state's unexpectedly rosy economy would produce an additional $2.7 billion in tax revenues over the next 14 months. His plan: Give a bit more to the schools, but return a hefty $700 million to the state's 16 million taxpayers in the form of a rebate averaging about $42 per person. His reasoning: The people of California in 1979 had ``wisely'' voted the spending limits of Proposition 4, under which he was compelled to hand back the rebate.

That fired Honig's ire still further. ``I'm confident that Californians don't want to take money from children to give a short-term rebate of a few dollars,'' he said at a hastily convened news conference the same day. In fact, he noted, the money could legally be passed along to the schools by giving it to the local districts, which were well below their spending limits.

During an interview in his office here later that day, a still-simmering Honig insisted that California is no longer tax-cut country. He points to the success of the newly formed grass-roots coalition of parents and educators, the California Movement for Education Reform, that sprang up in the wake of January's budget-slashing. The polls show, he says, that 70 percent of the people want to invest in the schools. ``Do we build for the future, or do we take a short-term view?'' he asks. ``Guys like the governor are out of date. They're fighting a rear-guard action. They're last year's hash.''

Across the lawn at the state capitol, the governor's education specialist, Peter G. Mehas, puts a different light on it. Chiding Honig for his ``public display of tantrum,'' he notes that the schools, which get 55.4 percent of the state budget, have had a 21 percent funding increase - per pupil, in real dollars - in the four years that Deukmajian has been in office.

What the governor wants, says Dr. Mehas, is a superintendent who can provide ``an accurate analysis of how the schools are doing'' with their funds. He worries that too much money has gone into programs that don't directly affect the classroom. ``I'm not so sure we need all this state department of education bureaucracy,'' he says. ``I think we need to get back to what it's all for: teachers and kids.''

All of which would make a curious little tale of political infighting, were it not for three things. First, the stakes are huge. The education reform movement - launched in 1983 with the publication of the widely read study, ``A Nation at Risk'' - has flourished in California, a state that often sets trends. It is an issue of first-order importance as the nation rolls toward the 21st century. If it fizzles here, the consequences could be felt nationwide.

Second, there is a sobering question of demographics. Most California voters are mature and white. But the 100,000 new students swelling the schools each year are largely young and minority - Hispanic, black, and Asian.

But third, there is a profound rightness about both sides in this argument. Those who press for education reform make a most convincing case. But so do those who claim that bureaucracies - especially educational bureaucracies - are already bloated, that the last thing they need is more funds diverted from the private sector, and that governments had better learn to do better with less.

None of these issues, alas, is getting an intelligent airing in the current squaring-off in Sacramento. Nor does the climate appear to be improving. Last week, the governor appeared on a popular commuter-hour radio talk-show in Los Angeles. He had taken only a few calls when someone named ``Bill'' came on the line. It was Bill Honig, who had finally cornered his new-found adversary into a one-on-one exchange. When talk-show host Michael Jackson at last sounded the gong, there was astonishment in commuter-land - and a sense that an issue of vast significance had been reduced to a gloves-off, no-holds-barred display of personal bickering.

A sorry sight? Indeed. But there's one consolation. The education issue is finally where it belongs: on the front burner. Stay tuned.

A Monday column

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