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Time for Schwarzenegger the Action Figure to Emerge on Education

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When the state that educates 1 in 8 American children is failing miserably at that task, America should care. When that state is also the 8th largest economy in the world, we should be up in arms. It's not just California's future that is tied to the quality of the state's education system; it's the nation's.

Unfortunately serious progress on the education front may be tossed overboard in the next few days if Governor Schwarzenegger, absent a water deal this weekend, follows through with his threat to veto all bills. In laying the foundation for a long overdue overhaul of California's archaic and highly dysfunctional school funding system, Assembly Bill 8 (AB 8) by Assembly Education Committee Chair Julia Brownley is among the most important of the threatened measures.

A 2007 state-requested set of studies from scholars across the ideological spectrum agreed that California's public school funding system is irrational, inequitable, and hopelessly convoluted. District revenue allocations are not based on what it costs to educate students to California's content standards, but rather on out-dated formulas largely set in the 1970's that now send widely varying amounts of money to different districts of similar size and demographics.

The Governor's own Committee on Education Excellence echoed those same conclusions in a report released last year:

"Research...shows that California's current K through 12 education finance system is the most complex in the nation but yields little benefit. Core funding is based on anachronistic formulas, neither tied to the needs of individual students nor to intended academic outcomes."

The report concludes:

"Our current system is not equitable; it is not efficient; and it is not sufficient for students who face the greatest challenges."

AB 8 takes the first big step in reworking school funding in California. It requires that a bipartisan governmental working group propose a new funding structure to the Legislature by December 2010 that, among other things, would make the system equitable, rational, and based on the costs of educating students. In a legislature that can agree on little when it comes to money, the bill passed with wide bipartisan support--79-0 in the Assembly and 31-6 in the Senate. A broad coalition of business, good government, parent, student, and civil rights groups have urged the Governor to sign the bill. Best of all, AB 8 won't cost Californians a penny. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has generously offered to accept a proposal to finance the costs of the working group.

Hopefully, the Governor will help cement his legacy on education by signing the bill. What could be easier than enacting a bold, no-cost bill with broad support across the spectrum, that builds off your own Committee's recommendations, and that passes the difficult implementation hurdle on to your successor?

Yet, there is cause for concern Schwarzenegger may veto AB 8 and not just because of his play for a water deal. Word is that at least some advisors are pooh-poohing the bill as "just another study," even though, in creating a concrete, bipartisan framework for legislative action it is obviously so much more. Unfortunately, Schwarzenegger has listened before to advisors urging him to avoid the "cost pressures" of making an honest assessment of the costs of educating California's students. ("Cost pressures" is government-speak for "if we have to admit how much that costs, there will be pressure for us to raise revenues.") When he took office in 2003, Schwarzenegger removed the seven Gray Davis appointees to a 13-member Quality Education Commission that was tasked with doing just that. He never filled the seven slots and the Commission never convened. When the Sacramento Bee, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the San Jose Mercury derided "the phantom commission" and called for the appointments, Schwarzenegger instead created his less-ambitious and differently-missioned Committee on Education Excellence.

After 2007's ambitious set of studies were published, Schwarzenegger vowed that 2008 would be "the Year of Education." But that year came and went with no action to implement any major reforms. Lately, his education legacy has only grown bleaker. The Governor has overseen unprecedented cuts to California education funding, totaling a shocking $2,000 per student over the past two years. For a state that the respected weekly Education Week already ranks 46th in the nation in per pupil spending, it won't be surprising if we've now dropped to 50th.

The Governor rode into office promising to be an education governor. And initially he was. In 2004, he settled the Williams v. California lawsuit, guaranteeing to all California students--for the first time--access to basic educational resources like sufficient textbooks, safe clean school facilities, and qualified teachers. He supported a $200 million expansion of high school counselors in 2006 only to see that program now decimated by cuts and funding flexibility. His current efforts are focused on pursuing "Race to the Top" federal stimulus funds, and he has called a special legislative session to do so. But these funds (at most, $750 million) represent a drop in the bucket of California's education budget--and there's no guarantee California will even be among the handful of states awarded them.

Instead, Schwarzenegger should be focusing his leadership on laying the groundwork for school finance reform in California. Indeed, it is times like these, when money is scarce, that offer the best opportunities to decide how limited resources can be spent more wisely and to plan ahead for how additional funds can be allocated most efficiently when they become available.

To be sure, AB 8 by itself won't solve the problem of California's irrational, inadequate, unequal, and unstable system of school finance. That will require bold legislators to enact the recommendations that come out of this working group a year from now. But the bill will set up a meaningful way to finally jumpstart this process by requiring state policy makers to design and propose a school finance system that is based on simple, transparent funding formulas and that at long last funds education based on what it actually costs to educate students.

As Paul Krugman's piece in today's New York Times reminds us, our national and state governments, including California's, are failing to invest adequately in education--and they are doing so at our future economic peril. To be the governor who started California on the road to a responsible school funding system? Now that's a legacy worthy of an action hero.