Gov. Jerry Brown playing chess with school funding 

California’s budget contains hundreds of specific provisions, but none is bigger, more complicated, more politicized, more emotional — or more important — than the $30 billion or so it spends on K-12 education.

That was true even before Gov. Jerry Brown proposed to increase state school aid and raised its political and societal stakes even higher, although he claims it would be less complicated.

Brown’s proposed 2012-13 budget would increase K-12 spending by $4.4 billion — but only if voters pass temporary increases in sales and income taxes next fall. School officials worry, however, that the supposed increase would be more a bookkeeping exercise than new cash in hand. And if the taxes fail, the schools would lose the money.

Is Brown using schools as a pawn in the chess game over taxes, knowing they are the most popular piece of the budget? Does the sun rise in the East?

At the very least, it forces local school officials to make difficult assumptions about whether the taxes will pass or fail and fashion their own 2012-13 budgets accordingly. It’s a new version of the game Brown and the Legislature played with the 2011-12 budget and its last-minute assumption that the state would get another $4 billion in revenue.

John Fensterwald, a veteran journalist who blogs about schools for the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, puts it this way:

“District officials do fear the downside if Brown’s tax proposal fails, but they don’t see a lot of upside if it passes. Many feel like they’re being used by Brown and his administration, who are characterizing a general temporary sales and income tax increase as a tax for K-12 schools and community colleges.”

Educators don’t see much upside because about half of the supposedly new school money would “pay down” aid deferrals — money that’s already counted but doesn’t actually show up until months later. They are already spending that money, using reserves or loans to cover cash delays.

While the Capitol digests that Brown political ploy, it also must deal with his plans to eliminate more of the narrowly focused “categorical aids” in the state’s very complex school finance package, thereby making school finances more flexible, while recasting the way aid is calculated.

The latter is aimed at giving more money to schools with large numbers of poor or non-English-speaking students — and therefore less to affluent districts.

Finally, the governor would eliminate much of the academic testing that has mushroomed in recent years under the rubric of “accountability,” thereby, or so it would seem, short-circuiting the nascent effort to use academic tests for teacher evaluation.

It’s a tall order for a Capitol that measures change in education policy in micrometers and usually misses even that mark.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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