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Thursday, February 17, 2005 | Last year Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, seeking to reduce the state budget deficit, asked California’s K-12 schools to loan him a few billions dollars. The state was already funding its schools at lower per student levels than most other states including Louisiana, Alabama and West Virginia. Still, they complied.

During the Pat Brown years (1959-1967), California schools were among the best funded in the nation and became a leader in innovation and student performance. The state’s K-12 funding position subsequently slipped in the Reagan administration and continued doing so in the succeeding Brown, Deukmejian and Wilson administrations. Governor Davis restored it, somewhat, but Schwarzenegger is now reducing it again, perhaps permanently.

Arnold promised to repay last year’s school loan this year and next but says he’s reneging. This is a new, ominous Terminator. He’s proposing a state ballot initiative to lower the amount of money the state spends to educate its children.

This is a blunder of major proportions. California’s prosperity has been based, in part, on having the world’s best public education system. It has allowed us to invent and produce high quality products that set standards in world market places. The conservative San Diego Union-Tribune in a “Right on, Governor” editorial endorsing Schwarzenegger’s school finance reduction plan said, “simply dedicating ever more billions to California’s schools will not result in greater student achievement.”

They are partially right. Money doesn’t automatically guarantee improvement. But what the editors neglected to add is that low school spending is associated with low levels of student achievement. There is a general correlation between expenditures and performance.

Inadequate school spending and student performance threatens California’s future prosperity. That is the problem people want Arnold to rectify. They do not expect him to foster a further funding erosion of the state’s schools. The issue may come to haunt the governor. While 60 percent of Californian’s currently approve of his job performance, sixty-two percent believe more money should be spent on K-12 education. A majority now disapprove of his handling of K-12 education. This is the first crack in the governor’s magnificence.

One neutral source estimates that the recent 2002-2003 to 2004-2005 decline in state spending was $600 per pupil, adjusted for inflation. This is a significant amount and has caused parents who once organized and campaigned for Arnold to begin to apply those skills to opposing him. The governor dismisses them as “special interests.” He told the editorial board of The Orange County Register he was planning a counterattack saying, “If there’s one thing I know very well, it is communicating with the people.”

After a career in movies where illusion and make-believe prevail, the governor may be engaging in some self-delusion. Sixty-two percent of the public is the public interest. Nevertheless, the governor announced that he intends to raise $50 million for a campaign to promote ballot measures which include a limit on the amount of funds the state spends on schools.

Last year, confronting Democrat legislators, he exhibited bravado and, in the face of resistance, compromise. But that may not be a wise strategy for dealing with the public. When a parent, grandparent or member of the public concerned with schools discovers the governor is on the wrong side of this issue, the political damage may be permanent.

Most Californians have high hopes for Arnold. They want to believe he is different. They think their interests and his coincide. If he breaks this bond, his unique aura may disintegrate and plunge him into the world of vulnerable political mortals.

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